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POLITICS: PennAve

Senate bills on Veterans Affairs will reignite fight over spending

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The Senate this week will begin considering legislation in committee to both privatize and reform the troubled Veterans Affairs health care system, and some of the legislation is likely to revive an inter-party political fight over the cost and scope of the agency.

Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., said Sunday that he plans to introduce legislation as soon as Monday that would allow veterans to get medical care at private facilities or Defense Department bases if they cannot get VA care quickly.

“But longer-term, what we have to do within the VA is to make sure that they have the primary care physicians, the nurses and the staffing they need to provide for quality of care that our veterans deserve in a timely manner,” Sanders said Sunday on CBS.

The GOP-led House is out of session this week, after passing a series of bills intended to eliminate systemic mismanagement and malfeasance at the VA that has resulted in delayed care and hidden waiting lists.

Rather than take up the House-passed legislation, the Senate, whose majority is run by Democrats, will begin considering their own provisions, including a massive measure sponsored by Sanders that would spend $21 billion to overhaul and expand the delivery of medical, education and job-training benefits for veterans.

Senate Republicans blocked the measure in February, in part because Democrats wanted to pay for it with savings from ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The GOP believes war spending savings are an accounting trick because the money has not been budgeted.

The Sanders bill would expand coverage to veterans with injuries not directly related to service and it would add new benefits that the GOP has argued would overwhelm the VA system.

The spotlight on the troubles at the VA and resulting public outrage, however, could make it much more politically difficult for Republican senators to vote against the massive measure again if the Democratic majority brings it to the floor for a second time.

In addition to expanding benefits, the bill would codify new provisions to help the VA provide faster medical care to veterans, who are currently waiting an average of four months to see a doctor.

Sanders plans to hold a June 5 hearing on the measure, as well as other VA reform legislation.

Last month, the GOP-led House passed bills that would make it faster and easier for the VA secretary to fire incompetent senior-level workers and to end bonuses.

Sanders told the Washington Examiner the legislation “has problems” because it does not afford VA employees protection from being fired for political reasons.

Instead, he’ll hold a hearing this week on similar legislation, but it “would maintain the VA’s ability to be competitive in recruiting and retaining top-notch leaders and managers by ensuring expedited due-process protections for senior executives facing removal or demotion for poor performance.”

Sanders told CBS he wants legislation to allow the VA secretary to “get rid of, as quickly as we can, people who are incompetent and that we keep the promises that we've made to our veterans.”

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Susan Ferrechio

Chief Congressional Correspondent
The Washington Examiner