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Sanders bill threatens to delay congressional response VA scandal

FILE – This Feb. 20, 2014, file photo shows Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., standing in defeat after a divided Senate derailed Democratic legislation providing $21 billion for medical, education and job-training benefits for the nation's veterans, as the bill fell victim to election-year disputes over spending and whether to slap sanctions on Iran on Capitol Hill in Washingtons. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite) AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite\n

Congress's effort to respond to the Department of Veterans Affairs healthcare scandal could be further delayed by a new legislative proposal in the Senate that Republicans are already criticizing as too soft.

On Sunday, Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) offered legislation that — like a bill the House has already passed — aims to make it easier for the VA to fire officials involved in the scandal. He said it would let the VA immediately remove senior officials based on poor job performance.

Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., announced a Veterans Affairs bill that some are already criticizing as too soft. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

But Sanders said his bill would prevent "wholesale political firings" by including language ensuring VA employees are entitled to "due process." While Sanders had not released his language as of Monday morning, one senior Republican source indicated Senate Republicans would oppose it as something that creates more hurdles to firing VA officials.

"Their proposal would actually protect top VA decision makers with a brand new layer of red tape, and it's hard to see how that helps in the effort to hold them accountable for their actions," this source said.

That's a sign that a congressional response to the VA scandal could still be weeks or even months away. Even if the Senate can pass a bill with most Republicans opposed, the House and Senate would have to find an agreement on a bill they can send to President Barack Obama.

A VA bill seemed to be on a fast track last month, after the House easily approved a tougher bill that would essentially make senior VA officials at-will employees, and allow the VA secretary to fire or discipline them as he sees fit. Only 33 Democrats opposed that bill, which was seen as a response to the long wait times veterans faced for healthcare — an issue that led to VA Secretary Eric Shinseki's resignation last week.

During House debate, Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) argued that the current process at the VA makes it "easier for someone to get a bonus than it is to be given some type of discipline."

A day later, Sanders himself blocked a GOP attempt to quickly pass the House bill in the Senate. Sanders said he would be bringing up his own bill to deal with the scandal.

Sanders' softer language on firings may not be the only point of contention. His Restoring Veterans' Trust Act gives the VA the authority to hire more doctors, requires upgrades in the VA's software, and creates a commission of experts to study problems at the VA.

It also looks to expand healthcare coverage for veterans, including by offering them dental care and access to alternative medicine. And, it restores a full cost-of-living adjustment for veterans' benefits.

All of these imply a much higher cost, and it's not clear that Republicans are willing to agree to those costs.

Still, Sanders is casting his bill as a more comprehensive way to address the scandal and the factors that contributed to the scandal.

"There must be a culture of honesty and accountability within the VA and people who have lied or manipulated data must be punished," he said. "But we also have to get to the root causes of the problems that have been exposed."

In the meantime, Republicans are planning to pass more legislation to address the VA scandal. That effort could include bills to step up oversight of the department, and allow veterans to seek other healthcare options when faced with long wait times.

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