Despite bipartisan agreement that Congress must act quickly to help end significant wait times and neglect of patients at the nation's Veterans Affairs hospitals, lawmakers have reached a serious impasse that threatens to derail a deal just days before the August recess.
Talks have so seriously deteriorated that senators are trading jabs in floor speeches, aides are shooting off accusatory tweets and emails and lawmakers on Thursday refused to show up at the negotiating table.
“This kind of says it all,” a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., tweeted. “It looks like Republicans didn't even bother to set up chairs for Democrats at their VA press stunt meeting.'”
Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., earlier today rejected an invitation to the meeting with his House GOP counterpart on legislation to reform the troubled VA.
Sanders, speaking on the Senate floor, said he received the invitation to the meeting way too late -- at 10 p.m. Wednesday -- from House Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla. He said Miller would not disclose to Sanders the details of his plan.
“His idea is we have a proposal, take it or leave it,” Sanders said. “And any sixth grader in the United States understands that is not negotiating and that is not what democracy is about.”
Only one Democrat showed up to the noon conference committee meeting, where Miller unveiled his own plan to fix the VA by providing the agency with $10 billion — far less than what Sanders wants to provide in funding.
The money would mostly be used to help veterans seek private care when facing long wait times at VA medical facilities. Miller’s plan also includes $102 million to address a recent request for additional money by acting VA Secretary Sloan D. Gibson. Gibson had asked for $17.6 billion to help improve care at the VA, where veterans are waiting months to see a doctor and officials have been caught hiding long waiting lists.
“It’s what we would consider a down payment,” Miller said, on a plan to fund an overhaul of the VA.
“Disappointed to see some Democrats prefer #VA issues be discussed in secret, like the wait lists that hurt #veterans,” he tweeted.
At the heart of the dispute between the two parties is the cost of the legislation.
Sanders said own proposal would cost “less than $25 billion” and would include many of the reforms both parties are seeking for the VA, including a provision allowing vets to obtain private care when facing long wait times or difficult travel to VA facilities.
“Our proposal is a common sense proposal which deals in a significant way with the needs of the veterans community,” Sanders said.
Part, but not all of the cost is offset, Sanders said. According to his proposals, about $3.3 billion is paid for with savings from other areas “within the Veterans Affairs Committee jurisdiction.”
Since Sanders refused to show up at the meeting, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., volunteered to go as a stand in. McCain told Miller that the top four negotiators from both parties should sit down today and try to come up with a compromise bill.
“That’s the only way we are going to reach a conclusion,” McCain said.
There is limited time for Congress to act. Lawmakers leave town for the August recess at the end of next week.
Asked after the conference meeting whether he’ll meet with Sanders Thursday, Miller said he’s already been talking to Sanders for weeks. “I’ve got a very full schedule,” Miller said. “I don’t know what Sen. Sanders’ schedule is, but we’ll just have to see.”
Meanwhile, Miller has scheduled a Monday conference committee vote on his plan. Miller said he hopes Sanders shows up with his own proposal.
Sanders hasn't indicated what he'll do, but he wrote this on Twitter:
“My strong hope has been and remains that we could overcome the dysfunction and actually do something to help our nation’s veterans.”
A minute later he tweeted, “I am sad to say that I can only conclude that the good faith we have shown is simply not being reciprocated by the other side.”