The U.S. Senate on Thursday failed to pass a comprehensive veterans bill to extend health care benefits to hundreds of thousands more veterans each year, provide family planning aid to war-injured vets and make caregiver support -- now available only to 9/11 veterans -- available to families from all U.S wars.
The vote came after three days of debate that regularly saw Republican lawmakers speak about Iran sanctions, the Affordable Care Act, and the Benghazi attack. Several Republicans sought to insert language calling for new sanctions on Iran into the veterans' legislation.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee and primary sponsor of the bill, exhorted lawmakers to pass the legislation.
His primary opponent on the floor was his committee's ranking member, Sen. Richard Burr, R-NC, who said he backed much of Sanders' bill but found it fiscally irresponsible and detrimental to a veterans health care system that is already overburdened.
The comprehensive legislation would have cost about $21 billion.
Sanders on Thursday reiterated that his bill was backed by the majority of veterans groups and military associations and the "millions and millions" of their members across the country.
In a shot at Republicans who are against the bill, he said he hoped those voting "no" will have the courage to face the veterans and family members and explain their decision. "You tell that [veteran] you think we cannot afford to help him or her" with fertility treatments needed because of combat injury, Sanders said. "But when you do that I hope you also tell him why you voted to give a trillion dollars in tax breaks to the top 2 percent [of earners]. Virtually all my GOP colleagues thought it was important to find new tax breaks for millionaires and billionaires."
"Enough [talk] about how everybody loves the veterans. Now is the time for action," Sanders said.
Burr warned that a provision opening up VA healthcare to veterans who do not have a service connected disability is inviting disaster. He said VA is already failing to meet the needs of those currently in the system, or will be entering it because of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan.
He also pointed out that a provision to have the VA sign leases with 27 facilities across the country and Puerto Rico in order to expand VA care will result in construction work that the VA cannot afford.
"Currently, we already have $14 billion of [VA] construction underway," he said, while regularly adding another $1 billion annually. "We're already backlogged by 14 years."
Burr also said he helped write the 9/11 veterans caregiver bill, but said it was passed with the understanding it would not be expanded until Congress saw it was working as envisioned and that the VA also instituted reforms.
"There's nothing in this bill that reforms VA," he said.
The bill would also have extended advance funding to all VA operations. Currently, the VA is funded two years in a row for health care. The move is seen as a victory by veterans' advocates, who want to remove the VA -- especially disabled veterans who receive disability compensation -- from consequences of any future government shutdown.
Last year, disabled vets were only days away from seeing their monthly checks held up by a GOP-led shutdown.
The legislation also called for renewing the Vow to Hire Heroes Act, which helps vets transitioning back to the civilian workforce, making dental care a part of VA health care, and extending the period that Iraq and Afghanistan war vets may seek VA care to 10 years.
The bill also called for improvements to care and services for veterans who were sexually assaulted in the military, advanced the use of alternative therapies and treatments, and guaranteed that veterans going to school on the GI Bill pay in-state tuition.
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