The Washington Post

Senate rejects far-reaching Veterans Affairs bill


The measure, sponsored by Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), did not garner enough Republican votes to waive a VA spending limit established under the budget Congress and President Obama approved in December. (Michael Reynolds/EPA)

A broad Department of Veterans Affairs bill that would have expanded benefits for former service members and repealed a military pension cut for future troops was rejected in the Senate on Thursday.

The measure, sponsored by Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Bernard Sanders (I-Vt.), did not garner enough Republican votes to waive a VA spending limit established under the budget Congress and President Obama approved in December. Sanders’s office estimated that his legislation, which included more than 140 provisions, would have cost $21 billion over 10 years.

On Tuesday, GOP lawmakers tried to trim the VA bill and add sanctions on Iran for that nation’s nuclear program. Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) blocked those attempts.

Veterans groups expressed frustration with the bill’s failure, saying it fell victim to Washington’s partisan politics. The measure was four votes shy of a 60-vote threshold required for it to have advanced.

“I don’t know how anyone who voted ‘no’ today can look a veteran in the eye and justify that vote,” said Daniel M. Dellinger, national commander of the American Legion. “Our veterans deserve more than what they got today.”

Aside from the costs, Republicans also were concerned that the bill would add more veterans to a system already struggling with extensive wait times at VA health clinics and a long-standing backlog of disability claims. The legislation would have extended the period of time veterans are eligible to enroll in the VA health-care system from five years to 10 years after deployment.

Sen. Richard Burr (N.C.), the ranking Republican on the panel, said on the Senate floor this week that the bill would not provide the resources needed for the program expansions to happen without more frustration and delays for veterans already in the network.

“We have veterans dying from long waits for basic, necessary tests like colonoscopies,” Burr said Thursday. “Veterans waiting for their disability claims to be processed know all about frustrations and delays at the VA, and adding more individuals to an already broken system doesn’t seem wise.”

The legislation called for expanding several veterans benefits, including dental and medical care, educational assistance and the caretaker stipends that currently apply only to post-Sept. 11 veterans. It also required the repeal of a recent cut to the cost-of-living adjustments for future military retirees and would have allowed VA to open 27 new health facilities.

Sanders had said he would be open to paying for the provisions with savings from reduced overseas contingency operations, formerly known as the global war on terrorism. But Republicans indicated that they prefer to dedicate the savings toward deficit reduction.

Sanders promised to try again with his bill.

“I am proud that we received every Democratic vote and that two Republicans also voted with us,” he said Thursday in a statement. “In the coming weeks, I will be working hard to secure three additional Republican votes, and I think we can do that.”

Josh Hicks covers Maryland politics and government. He previously anchored the Post’s Federal Eye blog, focusing on federal accountability and workforce issues.

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