The Politics of Process Plague Senate Vets Bill

“It’s pretty simple,” said Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa. “We don’t understand why the Senate shouldn’t function as it historically has functioned." “It’s pretty simple,” said Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa. “We don’t understand why the Senate shouldn’t function as it historically has functioned." Susan Walsh/AP file photo

Legislation to help veterans often wins bipartisan support, but a rift between Senate Democrats and Republicans over process—who gets to offer amendments and how many—is threatening an omnibus bill moving through the chamber.

Senate Republicans are emerging as skeptics of a Democratic bill sponsored by Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders of Vermont (I), arguing that an increasingly familiar script that has killed other bills may well repeat itself here.

Republican lawmakers describe a pattern in which Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., brings Democratic legislation to the floor and blocks the minority from offering amendments, and in response they block the measure from advancing to a simple-majority vote. The process has thus far stalled an extension of unemployment insurance.

“It’s pretty simple,” said Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa. “We don’t understand why the Senate shouldn’t function as it historically has functioned. The right of a single senator to offer amendments is pretty important. It’s a matter of principle as much as it is about any of the specific pieces of legislation.”

The Senate voted Tuesday to proceed to the Sanders bill, which would reverse an unpopular cut to veterans’ pensions that was enacted as part of the budget deal, as well as expand veterans’ education and health care benefits.

Republicans are wary of Sanders’s plan to expand benefits, and they’re furious over what they say is strong-arming by Reid.

“If Senator Reid were willing to run a legislative process, I think you can move bills,” said Republican Sen. Mike Johanns of Nebraska, who sits on the Veterans’ Affairs Committee. “It’s like this unemployment [legislation]. I always thought the votes were there. I just never could understand why he didn’t let the process go forward.”

Republicans blame election-year politics.

Grassley said Reid may be limiting amendments to protect vulnerable Democrats.

“This I can’t answer, it’s just a supposition, but to what extent does Senator Reid not want the senate to function because he wants to protect his majority?” Grassley said.

For his part, Reid has said that he will green-light GOP amendments that are related to the veterans bill, but at the same time made it clear that he will draw a line beyond which Republicans cannot cross. Exactly where that line is set remains to be seen.

“This doesn’t mean that we’ll go on forever,” Reid said.

Though 99 senators got on board for Tuesday’s vote to move the measure a small step forward, it’s unclear whether that support will continue on future, more substantive votes to pass the bill.

One of the Republican amendments is a plan to replace the measure with an alternative from Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina, the Veterans’ Affairs panel’s top Republican.

The GOP plan would change how to pay for the expanded spending, which under the Sanders bill relies on savings from the drawdown of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Republicans say those savings are “false,” arguing they don’t actually save taxpayers money. Instead, Republicans want to pay for it by targeting a child tax credit used by undocumented immigrants.

If Republicans don’t get to vote on their amendments, and if its spending offset isn’t changed, they’re threatening to block the measure—even if that position leaves them at odds with most veterans groups.

“It would be very difficult for people to vote against a veterans bill,” said Republican Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma. “But if they do it with the [war-drawdown funding] offset there might be some of us who vote against it, and I might be one of them.”

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., took offense at the fact that Republicans were being blocked from amending such a massive bill for such a vital group. “I think I know as much about veterans as Mr. Sanders, with all due respect, yet I’m not allowed a single amendment to Mr. Sanders’s bill; that to me is an outrage and an insult,” he said.

Another Republican amendment would call for Iran sanctions, a sensitive area dividing some Democrats and the White House, which wants to see its diplomatic approach proceed.

Burr said that he could not abide a Democratic request that only amendments pertaining to veterans issues be offered.

“The chair made a plea that this be limited to VA issues,” Burr said. “That might be possible if the minority had the opportunity to amend legislation in this institution. It’s the only way we can get this to the floor because we’re denied any other attempt to do it.”

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
FROM OUR SPONSORS
JOIN THE DISCUSSION
Close [ x ] More from GovExec
 
 

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from GovExec.com.
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Sponsored by Brocade

    Best of 2016 Federal Forum eBook

    Earlier this summer, Federal and tech industry leaders convened to talk security, machine learning, network modernization, DevOps, and much more at the 2016 Federal Forum. This eBook includes a useful summary highlighting the best content shared at the 2016 Federal Forum to help agencies modernize their network infrastructure.

    Download
  • Sponsored by CDW-G

    GBC Flash Poll Series: Merger & Acquisitions

    Download this GBC Flash Poll to learn more about federal perspectives on the impact of industry consolidation.

    Download
  • Sponsored by One Identity

    One Nation Under Guard: Securing User Identities Across State and Local Government

    In 2016, the government can expect even more sophisticated threats on the horizon, making it all the more imperative that agencies enforce proper identity and access management (IAM) practices. In order to better measure the current state of IAM at the state and local level, Government Business Council (GBC) conducted an in-depth research study of state and local employees.

    Download
  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    The Next Federal Evolution of Cloud

    This GBC report explains the evolution of cloud computing in federal government, and provides an outlook for the future of the cloud in government IT.

    Download
  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    A DevOps Roadmap for the Federal Government

    This GBC Report discusses how DevOps is steadily gaining traction among some of government's leading IT developers and agencies.

    Download
  • Sponsored by LTC Partners, administrators of the Federal Long Term Care Insurance Program

    Approaching the Brink of Federal Retirement

    Approximately 10,000 baby boomers are reaching retirement age per day, and a growing number of federal employees are preparing themselves for the next chapter of their lives. Learn how to tackle the challenges that today's workforce faces in laying the groundwork for a smooth and secure retirement.

    Download
  • Sponsored by Hewlett Packard Enterprise

    Cyber Defense 101: Arming the Next Generation of Government Employees

    Read this issue brief to learn about the sector's most potent challenges in the new cyber landscape and how government organizations are building a robust, threat-aware infrastructure

    Download
  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    GBC Issue Brief: Cultivating Digital Services in the Federal Landscape

    Read this GBC issue brief to learn more about the current state of digital services in the government, and how key players are pushing enhancements towards a user-centric approach.

    Download
  • Sponsored by CDW-G

    Joint Enterprise Licensing Agreements

    Read this eBook to learn how defense agencies can achieve savings and efficiencies with an Enterprise Software Agreement.

    Download
  • Sponsored by Cloudera

    Government Forum Content Library

    Get all the essential resources needed for effective technology strategies in the federal landscape.

    Download

When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.