Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders made a plea Tuesday for continued support for legislation intended to stop a rash of preventable deaths of veterans waiting for health care.
Taking to the Senate floor, the Vermont independent parroted comments from Republican Sen. John McCain earlier in the day that if ever there was an emergency, the Veterans Affairs Department mess is it, and therefore is deserving of emergency funds to address it.
The House and Senate have each made the issue a priority and passed legislation last week intended to make it easier to fire incompetent leaders at the VA and expand health care services to vets beyond the VA, among other reforms. The chambers now need to work out differences to get a bill to President Obama and into law.
Sanders said he expects both chambers to appoint conferees Wednesday to serve on a conference committee to negotiate a compromise bill and said his staff has already begun preliminary conversations with staff for Republican House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller.
But one wrinkle is a nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office report. The CBO estimated that the Senate bill—which would skip budget offsetting, pay-as-you-go rules—could add as much as $35 billion in direct spending over 10 years and ultimately cost the federal government an additional $50 billion a year as vets pursue additional health care.
The cost estimate contributed to the loss of three Republican votes in the Senate and is adding complications to the more fiscally conservative House.
"In terms of balancing the budget, paying for things, figuring out where we're going ... clearly systemic reform and efficiency and effectiveness of operation is absolutely essential," House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer told reporters Tuesday, referencing the CBO score.
"What has happened in the VA and the impact it's had on our veterans is unacceptable, therefore we need to solve it. But that does not mean we need to not have any considerations for fiscal responsibility and sustainability over time, so yeah I think that will be part of the discussion," he added.
Seeking to shore up support, Sanders urged Senate colleagues to keep pushing to ensure reforms make their way into law quickly.
"My hope is that we can get this legislation onto the president's desk as soon as we possibly can," he said. "It is one thing to give heartfelt speeches about how much we love and respect veterans. It is another thing to act, and now is the time for action."