The Senate voted unanimously Tuesday to pass legislation aimed at improving mental health care at the Department of Veterans Affairs, a bill that was blocked late last year by then-Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.).
In December, Coburn argued that the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention Act was a bill that mostly duplicated programs already found at the VA, and said Congress should be more worried about finding ways to bring more accountability to the troubled VA.
Former Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) blocked a veterans bill last year, but with him gone, the Senate moved Tuesday to pass it, without him in the Senate. Image: AP
"Don't pass another bill, hold the VA accountable," Coburn said in December. "Regrettably… I object to this bill, not because I don't want to help save suicides, because I don't think this bill's going to do the first thing to change what’s happening."
Coburn was only able to block the bill because the Senate was trying to pass it in the last few days of the prior Congress, using a fast-track process that requires every senator to agree. When Coburn didn't agree, it prevented the Senate from passing the bill at the last second.
Coburn's move drew anger from some veterans, who said he was needlessly blocking a bill that most members of both parties agree on. The now-retired senator said Congress had just passed a $10 billion bill for the VA last summer, and said the suicide prevention bill moves money around at the VA, but won't do enough to bring real help to veterans.
The bill is expected to require a shifting of about $22 million of VA funding, but does not create any new spending on net.
With Coburn now retired, Congress quickly moved to try again, and the House passed similar legislation in mid-January.
With less of a time crunch, the Senate would have been able to pass it even if Coburn were still around. On Monday, the Senate debated the House bill, and on Tuesday afternoon, the Senate held a vote that showed Coburn was essentially the lone holdout on the bill — it passed 99-0.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said moments later that President Barack Obama would sign it into law.