Senator Suggests Using War Funds to Pay for Vets Benefits Bill

Harry Hamburg/AP file photo

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., suggested Wednesday that war funds could be used to pay for some or all of his omnibus veterans bill, but he could face an uphill battle in the House.

The bill, which Sanders introduced last week, tackles a swath of veterans issues, including health care, education, employment, and -- an issue on the minds of many members of Congress -- restoring the roughly $6 billion in pensions cut during the budget agreement to working-age military retirees.

Sanders proposed offsetting the cost of the legislation by using the Overseas Contingency Operations funds, which have been used to pay for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"I believe, having looked at this, that there is more than enough money in that fund to fund this legislation," Sanders said. But he noted that the final decision will have to be made in conjunction with Senate Democratic leadership.

Sanders told reporters Wednesday that he expects the legislation to cost $30 billion over 10 years.

The Vermont independent said Majority Leader Harry Reid wants to bring the bill before the Senate "as quickly as he possibly can," but sidestepped questions on a specific timeline.

Reid has filed the bill under Rule 14 -- which allows legislation to skip the committee process -- meaning the proposal could be taken up as soon as the Senate reconvenes next week.

"This is one of the most comprehensive pieces of veterans legislation that has been introduced in decades," Sanders said, adding that the bill tackles many concerns raised in recent years.

Approximately 18 military and veterans organizations have backed the proposal, and the senator said he believes it will soon have the support of every major veterans organization in the country.

The bill includes several pieces of legislation previously passed out of the Veterans' Affairs Committee, and Sanders noted that many of those bills received bipartisan support. He said he has yet to reach out to Republican colleagues, but plans to do so soon.

Although Sanders said he is "optimistic that we can work with our friends in the House," a Republican aide with the House Veterans' Affairs Committee quickly pushed back against the proposal.

"That money is not a regular budget item and by design will run out once Overseas Contingency Operations have ended, and therefore is probably not the best vehicle to use as an offset," the aide said, referring to using the OCO funds to pay for the veterans bill.

A 2012 Congressional Budget Office report notes that "there is no 'OCO fund' set aside in the Treasury from which resources can be drawn in future years."

The Republican aide added that although members "support the ultimate goals of a number of initiatives" in Sanders's bill, "we feel veterans would be better served if the Senate took a more measured, piecemeal approach to passing some of the initiatives."

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