One of the frequent boasts out of members of the Senate and House Veterans Affairs committees is that they serve on the most bipartisan panel in Congress because they believe the veteran should come first.
But that bipartisanship was absent Thursday as GOP and Democrat members of the two committees came out offering and endorsing competing proposals aimed at reaching compromise veterans legislation.
Republican members of a Senate-House conference committee on a pair of veterans' bills held their own meeting and voted on a proposal to resolve differences between bills, which they then sent to Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, chairman of the Senate veterans' panel and co-chair of the conference.
House co-chair Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Florida, approved a proposal to adopt much of the original Senate bill but without some of the major spending included in it as emergency appropriation.
Sanders referred to Miller's proposal as a "take it or leave it gambit," and his office called Miller's hastily called meeting "a stunt."
Sanders meanwhile put out a proposal of his own for compromise legislation.
Both lawmakers are touting their plans as significantly less costly than the original bills passed in the House and Senate.
The Senate already voted for a $35 billion veterans' bill, while the House approved legislation with a price tag of $44 billion.
Both bills are aimed primarily at getting veterans into healthcare more quickly, including by making it easier for veterans to go outside the VA for care. Both bills also include provisions to hold VA managers more accountable and make it easier for the VA to fire poorly performing officials, including those in the Senior Executive Service.
"This proposal would cost less than $25 billion – a major concession when compared to both the House and Senate passed bills," Sanders said.
Where the lawmakers and the bills really part company is in a $17.6 billion emergency funding request for the hiring of more clinician staff and entering into leases to provide additional beds and services to veterans.
Miller believes the VA has not justified the figure, which was offered up for the first time earlier this month by Acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson as the fastest way to end delays in care for veterans.
In the proposal GOP members sent to Sanders on Thursday, Miller said he would accept pretty much the entire Senate bill. However, instead of language opening the door to the $17.6 billion fund, he proposed inserting $10 billion in emergency funding with no end-year cap.
He would also go along adding a 27th lease to the plan and include $102 million to cover VA funding shortfalls through the rest of fiscal 2014, he said.
But if the VA needs additional funds to cover the emergency situation, he said, the department should go through the usual appropriations process.
Miller has said he is skeptical of figures that the VA comes up with after having seen it go through millions over past years for programs that never were completed, or which needed additional funds to complete.
Gibson, in testimony before the House Veterans Affairs Committee earlier on Thursday, said the $17.6 billion figure comes from the administration and is not solely a VA number.
Sanders, during his afternoon press conference, criticized what he called a dysfunctional Congress hampered by partisanship.
He said the VA's funding request is supported by 16 veterans' organizations, including Veterans of Foreign Wars, Vietnam Veterans of America, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America and others.
These and other groups, he said, "in many ways know the VA better than anybody else ... and they made the same exact point, that we've got to provide emergency contract care [for the VA] and strengthen the VA so it can provide quality care in a timely manner."
Editor’s note: This story originally reported that The American Legion was among 16 veterans groups that support the Department of Veterans Affairs' request for $17.6 billion. The Legion does not support the request.
-- Bryant Jordan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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