Efforts by the House and Senate to agree on a bill to reform the Department of Veterans Affairs appeared close to collapsing Thursday over how to pay for billions of dollars in spending.
The fight raises the possibility that Congress will leave for its August break without passing a VA reform bill, despite pledges that members of both parties have made to quickly fix a VA that has left thousands of veterans with lengthy delays in health care service.
Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) blamed House GOP negotiators for failing to compromise enough over how to pay for the bill.
“We have put good faith offers on the table time and time again, and we have tried to meet our Republican colleagues more than halfway,” Sanders said.
“I am very sad to say that at this point, and I hope this changes, but at this point, I can only conclude with great reluctance that the good faith we have shown is simply not being reciprocated on the other side.”
Sanders said the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) said late Wednesday night that he would propose a new bill and try to pass it next week. Sanders said he has yet to see the new proposal, and took Miller’s comments as a sign that negotiations had effectively ended.
“It’s a matter of money, it’s not a matter of the provisions of the bill,” McCain said.
Sanders was joined on the Senate floor by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who called on both parties in the House and Senate to “calm down” and find a way to compromise.
Negotiators were set to meet at noon Thursday. A spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said the talks had not collapsed, and that all negotiators were invited to the noon meeting to continue the effort.
The cost of the VA reform effort has been a sticking point for Republicans, particularly in the House. The House passed a $44 billion bill, but one that would give Congress much more control over how the money is spent over the next few years.
The Senate bill cost $35 billion, but was criticized by many Republicans as one that virtually wrote a blank check to the VA that could lead to more spending in the next few years. Sanders proposed a less expensive bill, but said the House has also rejected that.
Cost issues surfaced earlier in the day at a House hearing in which Miller criticized the VA for making new demands for funding even though it admitted it had no basis for those estimates. Miller added that when he asked for details about the VA’s request for $13.5 billion, he received just a two-page description from the VA.
Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) also spoke on the Senate floor and blamed Republicans for failing to provide the needed funds for veterans.
“Republicans today will announce that they’re foregoing the veterans conference committee, and introducing a bill of their own. It is a proposal aimed at benefiting our veterans… it is not,” Tester said.
“It is not a bill that takes the best ideas of veterans organizations, experts or VA officials and moves the ball forward,” he added. “It is a proposal that is mean to gain political favor.”