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Sanders, McCain reach deal on VA reform, but Senate timing still unclear

U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., speaks to workers at MD Helicopters, Friday, May 30, 2014, in Mesa, Ariz. McCain addressed numerous issues, including the ongoing VA situation, in the town hall style meeting. (AP Photo/Matt York) AP Photo/Matt York

Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said Thursday that they have an agreement on legislation to reform the scandal-plagued Department of Veterans Affairs.

But the Senate is not expected to vote on that agreement this week, and McCain indicated the final shape of the bill might still depend on the Senate's consideration of several amendments.

U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., has a deal with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) on a Department of Veterans Affairs reform bill. (AP Photo/Matt York)

That means at least another week will be needed before the Senate can pass a bill to reform the VA in the wake of the veterans healthcare scandal. And because the bill is much broader than a House-passed bill on the VA, it means the House will also need some time to consider it.

A key piece of the bill deals with the ability of the VA secretary to fire senior officials involved in the scandal. A bill passed by the House in May would let the secretary immediately fire those officials.

Earlier in the week, Sanders offered alternative language that would let the VA secretary fire senior officials, but would also let officials appeal those decisions. Some Republicans saw the 4-week appeal process as an attempt to add more "red tape" to the process of firing people, but Sanders and McCain said that appeal process is still in the bill.

McCain said he supported that language, which is much faster than appeal procedures, and indicated it was strengthened by preventing officials from being paid during the process.

"Yes, we should have, as many of our colleagues want, accountability," McCain said. "But that accountability also in this proposal allows for due process for someone to at least hear their case."

Still, the language has the potential to turn off some GOP senators, who may push for amendments to strip out and make it look more like the House bill.

Another key issue is how much the bill spends. Sanders' earlier bill included several proposals that appears to cost several millions of dollars in new aide to veterans seeking healthcare, and it wasn't immediately clear which of these were taken out of the compromise bill.

However, the two senators said it would still spend money to ensure enough healthcare providers are available for veterans seeking care.

"This legislation will target $500 million in unobligated balances for the hiring of new VA doctors and nurses," Sanders said. He added it would allow for the construction of new healthcare facilities in 18 states around the country.

That language could also lead to some GOP opposition, as many Republicans have said the problem with the VA is not money, but how the money it has gets spent. Still, the use of unobligated balances — money already approved by Congress but not yet spent — could convince some Republicans to support it.

McCain said the compromise also includes language allowing veterans living in rural areas to seek healthcare with local providers.

After Sanders and McCain spoke, a few other senators encouraged others to offer only veterans-related amendments to the bill, in order to ensure the bill can move through the process. But it was not immediately clear how that process might work — the inability of senators to offer amendments on most bills, under Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), has prevented other bills from moving ahead over the last year.

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