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House rejects Senate's pricey VA reform proposal, calls for negotiations

Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla. chairman of the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs, greets witnesses as the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs holds a hearing to examine why thousands of military veterans have been waiting for up to three months for medical appointments, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Monday, June 9, 2014. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite) AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

House Republicans on Wednesday indicated they aren't willing to accept a Senate bill to reform the Department of Veterans Affairs that would increase the national debt by several billion dollars.

In a quick series of procedural votes, the House voted to seek negotiations with the Senate over how to reform the VA. Both chambers have passed VA reform bills in the wake of the scandal involving long wait times for veterans seeking healthcare, and efforts by VA officials to cover up the scandal.

Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla. chairman of the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs, said the House needs to talk with the Senate about more cost-effective reforms to the VA. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Both bills look to increase medical care options for veterans stranded in the broken VA system, and fire or demote VA workers involved in the scandal. But House-Senate negotiations on the bill could be clunky, as the two chambers still don't agree on several issues.

One of the biggest remaining disputes is the cost of each proposal. The Senate bill was passed as an emergency spending measure and would allow the VA to spend as much money as needed to implement the language, which implies an increase in the budget deficit.

The House bill, in contrast, is partially offset through cuts to VA bonuses, and gives Congress more control over spending as it's implemented. House Republicans have indicated they would look for offsetting spending as funds are needed to implement the bill.

Just after the House votes Wednesday, House Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) said the Senate bill gives the VA a "blank check," when instead, Congress should be working to force the VA to improve its management systems.

"This is not an agency that Congress should be cutting a no-strings-attached blank check," he said. "It is imperative that Congress follow a more methodical yet quick approach to funding new requirements which preserves Congress's oversight responsibility to protect taxpayer resources provided on behalf of America's veterans."

In addition to cost, the House and Senate bills have different views on how to discipline VA officials involved in the scandal.

The House bill would give the VA Secretary the broad authority to fire or demote officials as he sees fit, using the rules members of Congress can use for their staff. But the Senate bill sets up a four-week appeals process that senior VA staff could use to defend themselves.

House Republicans have said the Senate bill would create more red tape that could be used to make it harder to clean house at the scandal-plagued VA.

"While I'm open to discussing appeal rights, I am concerned that the Senate bill really doesn't change the status quo, and could in fact limit the secretary's authority to remove poor-performing employees," Miller said.

Finally, House GOP members say the Senate bill too quickly allows the VA to hire new medical personnel, even though most agree that VA doctors see about half the number of patients that private-sector doctors see.

"We need to ensure that VA healthcare staff and technology are used efficiently first, then address new hiring," he said. "Therefore, before Congress authorizes new funding for a whole new slew of medical personnel, I believe that VA managers must re-examine their current policies, and see if they can improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the personnel that are already in place."

Despite these hurdles, the House and Senate is hoping to pass a unified VA bill before the July 4 break.

Both the House and Senate bills are expected to cost a little more than $50 billion a year once their provisions became fully implemented. Budget hawks worry that once the provisions expire after a few years, there will be pressure to extend them for several years, which raises the question of whether and how Congress might decide to pay for the new benefits.

Both bills were popular in their respective chambers. The House version passed unanimously, and the Senate version passed 93-3.

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