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Policy: Budgets & Deficits

Congress faces gridlock on Veterans Affairs and border spending bills

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With just days left for Congress to legislate before adjourning for the summer, House and Senate leaders remain at odds over major border legislation and a bill to overhaul the troubled Veterans Affairs department.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said Monday he's not optimistic the two parties will come to an agreement on a bill that is supposed to overhaul the way medical care is delivered to the nations millions of veterans.

“Looks to me like they are going to come back with nothing,” Reid said Monday, referring to a conference of Republicans and Democrats from both chambers who have been in talks for weeks.

Reid on Monday blamed the impasse on Republicans, who he said oppose having “to spend some money” to fix the problems at the VA.

Republicans say Democrats are trying to steer the conference into approving “a blank check” for the VA, which has a well-documented history of wasteful spending.

Last week, VA Acting Secretary Sloan Gibson told Congress the agency needs $17.6 billion to care for a growing number of veterans over the next three years, but the GOP said the request appears slapped together and lacks accountability measures.

“If there's one thing we've learned over the last few months, it's that we can't trust VA's numbers,” House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla., said.

Republicans and Democrats, meanwhile are trying to lower the $35 billion cost of a congressional overhaul bill, which is aimed at improving the speed and quality of medical care for veterans by privatizing some services.

They believe the price tag provided by the Congressional Budget Office is artificially high because it does not take into account savings such as those that would be achieved by allowing some vets to seek private care close to home rather than taking an ambulance ride, in some cases hundreds of miles, to a VA facility.

Lawmakers have about eight days left to come up with a deal before summer adjournment.

The two parties are also at odds over how to respond to President Obama's request for $3.7 billion to deal with a surge of immigrant children who have flooded the Texas border in recent months.

House Republicans are crafting legislation that would give the president less than he has requested, but that bill may be difficult to pass. Democrats don’t like a GOP provision that would allow the federal government to speed deportations of the thousands of children who have entered the country illegally, and many Republicans will refuse to back a bill that would provide any funding to house, feed and provide legal aid to the immigrant surge, which they believe will only encourage more people to come.

The opposition in both parties may make it impossible for the House to garner the 218 votes needed to pass a bill.

At the heart of the debate is the state of the nation’s border security.

“I think right now we need to demonstrate we can secure the border by getting these youngsters back home as quickly as possible,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Monday on Fox News, adding that he does not believe Obama needs nearly $4 billion to return them to their home countries.

But Reid said he believes the border is secure and that children are coming to the United States to escape violence of Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala.

“These children aren’t sneaking over the border,” Reid said. “They are looking to the border for safety.”

Reid said Congress should approve the president’s funding request “to temporarily house and feed these children and minister whatever proceedings are legally necessary … until a decision is made about what to do with them.”

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Susan Ferrechio

Chief Congressional Correspondent
The Washington Examiner

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