The Senate on Wednesday approved a bipartisan Department of Veterans Affairs reform bill, setting up the possibility that the House could approve the same legislation this week and finally send it to the White House.
Senators passed the bill 93-3, in a rare show of cooperation on an issue that has united most Republicans and Democrats. The VA healthcare scandal has both parties demanding reforms aimed at improving accountability at the VA, after it was shown that officials tried to hide long wait times for medical appointments.
“[O]ver 57,000 veterans have been waiting for an appointment for over three months to see a physician at the VA,” said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a sponsor of the bill. “Over 63,000 veterans over the past 10 years have never been able to make an appointment at all.”
The only “no” votes came from Sens. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), and Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.).
The bill, which Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) also worked on, would let veterans see doctors outside the VA system if they live more than 40 miles away from a VA clinic. It would also allow the VA secretary to fire or discipline people involved in the scandal, but would give those officials a 4-week appeals process.
It allows unobligated funds to be used to hire more VA doctors and nurses, creates commissions to oversee the healthcare system at VA, and sets up 26 medical facility leases.
The vote came after Senate Budget Committee ranking member Sessions tried a procedural move against the bill, after claiming that it would spend more money than allowed without any offsetting revenue. Sessions noted a Congressional Budget Report that said the bill would cost $35 billion over the next 10 years, and said the Senate should not be approving a bill that exceeds agreed-upon spending levels without finding offsets.
Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) said he supported Sessions’s argument, and in recent days has said the VA has enough money, but is not using it smartly.
But both McCain and Sanders argued that the situation at the VA is an emergency, and that the Senate should ignore Sessions’s budget complaint. The Senate did just that by voting to waive his complaint.
Immediately afterward, the Senate passed the bill, sending it back to the House. The Senate passed the Sanders-McCain language as an amendment to a House-passed VA bill, which will give the House the option to quickly take it up and pass it if it wants to.
On Tuesday, the House approved a VA bill that also gives veterans care options outside the VA system, so it’s possible House GOP leaders will be fine with the Senate’s language.