The Senate Has a Deal to Fix the VA. What’s Next?

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. J. Scott Applewhite/AP

A bipartisan pair of senators has struck a deal to ease the firing of Veterans Affairs Department senior executives, provide significant funding for the hiring of new medical personnel and advance other agency reforms, but the proposal has yet to win universal praise.

Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., reached the agreement after unveiling separate measures within the past week. The compromise legislation will include key provisions of both senators’ proposals: McCain’s Republican-backed plan to give veterans 40 miles away from a VA facility access to private care on the government’s dime, and Sanders’ Democratic-backed initiative to create 26 new VA medical facilities and provide $500 million for hiring additional personnel.

The joint bill will also incorporate Sanders’ proposal to permit the VA secretary to fire Senior Executive Service employees immediately, while still allowing for an expedited appeal with the Merit Systems Protection Board. McCain’s bill included the House and Senate Committee-backed language of the VA Management Accountability Act, which did not provide for an MSPB hearing. Sanders said his compromise would ensure due process. Sanders echoed the concerns of federal employee advocates on MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow Show Thursday that without recourse for terminated workers, “I worry very much that if you have a new president coming in, and a new secretary, they could fire hundreds and hundreds of high-level supervisors for political reasons. I don’t want to see the VA become a politically oriented agency.” He added the MSPB appeal right would also protect against whistleblower retaliation, sexism and racism.

Sanders said his staff and McCain’s staff are drafting legislative language based on the agreement; the Senate leadership is looking to move “very quickly” on the bill, and expects a vote next week, he said. Senators mostly praised the proposal, though final passage is far from guaranteed. Senate Republicans filibustered a similar bill Sanders put forward in February, albeit one that did not include a firing provision or expanded access for private care.

Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., ranking member of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee and a cosponsor on McCain’s original legislation, said he was “pleased” with the agreement and thanked his colleagues for reaching a deal. Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., also a cosponsor on McCain’s legislation, and Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., who introduced the VA Management Accountability Act in the Senate, both met the compromise with approval.

Many conservatives, however, have previously taken issue with Sanders' approach, saying the VA scandal represents a management, not a funding, problem.

“What has been lacking are not dollars…but creative and compassionate solutions and the political courage to turn those ideas into reform,” wrote John Hart, a spokesman for Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., in a Washington Examiner op-ed last week. Coburn was also a cosponsor on the original McCain bill.

 Even if the bill clears the Senate, it would still face a hurdle in the House. Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, has also said VA does not need additional funding or facilities, with an aide writing in a blog post on his website: “What’s lacking at the VA isn’t money, it’s accountability.” Several House Democrats expressed similar sentiments.

Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, author of the lower chamber’s firing bill and leader of the House Republican crusade in recent weeks against VA management, offered tepid support of the Senate plan while declining to endorse it outright. Miller had been working on his own bill to give veterans access to private care before the Senate agreement.

“I’m pleased that Sens. Sanders, McCain and Burr appear to have reached a deal to address VA’s delays and care and accountability crises,” Miller said in a statement. “I hope the Senate will take the opportunity to act on this proposal as soon as possible so the House has a chance to explore its merits. From what I’ve heard so far, the proposal sounds promising, but without seeing complete details of a bill in its final form, I can’t make any further judgments.”

A spokesman for Rep. Mike Michaud, D-Maine, ranking member of Miller’s committee, said the congressman was “encouraged” by the agreement and is examining what provisions may need companion legislation in the House. The McCain-Sanders bill could avoid a House vote altogether, with McCain suggesting on Thursday the legislation could go to conference committee with bills the House has already passed.

Miller’s committee plans to hold a hearing on Monday to ask agency officials and investigators for more information on VA wait times and potential cover ups. The committee will also hold a hearing on June 20 on VA senior executives’ bonuses.

The House voted in October to cut bonuses for all VA employees by 14 percent for five years, in February to ban bonuses completely for agency senior executives for five years and in May to prohibit SES bonuses in 2015. The Senate Appropriations Committee also approved a measure last month to ban bonuses in 2015 for Veterans Health Administration medical directors, assistant medical directors and SES workers.

Shortly before his resignation, former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki announced no VHA senior executives would receive bonuses this year.

The Senate agreement received mixed reviews from federal employee groups. The American Federation of Government Employees said it was “cautiously optimistic” about the compromise, and praised the funding for new hires. The Senior Executives Association expressed concern with Sanders’ firing provision, calling the focus on removing SES employees “a reactionary solution that does not solve the problems in question.”

“While the provision in your bill attempts to add a small measure of due process…it is only giving the appearance of due process without actually conferring due process,” SEA President Carol Bonosaro wrote in a letter to Sanders.

The House was scheduled last week to vote on a bill that would tie immediate VA firings to a failure to implement recommendations by the Government Accountability Office, but the vote was delayed when the bill’s author, Rep. Dan Benishek, R-Mich., was stuck on a delayed flight. 

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