President Barack Obama is expected to sign legislation to overhaul the Veterans Affairs Department next week after the measure swiftly passed both houses of Congress.
For a moment, it appeared the signing of the bill would take place on Friday, a day after the Senate joined the House in rushing to approve the measure before Congress adjourned for August recess. But sources told Military.com the Senate was still working to finalize the document before sending it to the White House for the president's signature.
With enactment of the legislation all but guaranteed, veterans groups welcomed the deal brokered between Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Florida, and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, chairmen of the House and Senate veterans' affairs committees. But their reaction was tempered.
"Though we are both glad and relieved that an agreement is reached, we believe that Congress hardly deserves praise for finally doing something they should have done a long time ago," Paul Rieckhoff, head of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), said in a statement after the Senate vote on Thursday.
The bill passed the upper chamber by a vote of 91-3, a day after sailing through the lower chamber by a margin of 420-5. It comes about two months after Eric Shinseki resigned as VA secretary over a scandal involving dozens of vets who died while awaiting treatment after being placed on secret wait lists.
IAVA remains "outraged that it took the VA scandal to create this kind of urgency in Washington for our veterans," Rieckhoff said. While the legislation offers improvements at the agency, it's "not a silver bullet, but rather a Band-Aid, and one that will soon fall off," he said.
The measure calls for $16.3 billion in spending to expand both VA and community healthcare options for veterans who face long wait times and commutes; hire more doctors, nurses and other health-care workers; and improve accountability by making it easier for the agency secretary to fire executives.
The demand for greater accountability was spurred by revelations that at least 35 patients on a secret wait list died before seeing a doctor at the Phoenix VA Health Care System and that similar lists were kept at hospitals across the country.
Both the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars credited the chairmen of the congressional veterans' affairs committees for putting aside their political differences for veterans in approving the overhaul legislation.
But American Legion National Commander Daniel Dellinger also cautioned that the bill is only a "first step" toward repairing the agency. Provisions enabling veterans to seek care at non-VA facilities should only be a temporary response to the current delays until a permanent solution is found, he said.
A total of eight Republicans, including five congressmen and three senators, voted against the measure because it wasn't entirely paid for with existing funding. They were Sens. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, Bob Corker of Tennessee and Jeff Sessions of Alabama, and Reps. Rick Crawford of Arkansas, Jack Kingston of Georgia, Walter Jones of North Carolina, Mark Sanford of South Carolina, and Steve Stockman of Texas.
Veterans of Foreign Wars National Commander John Stroud criticized the lawmakers for "hypocrisy," noting that most of them previously "voted for hundreds of billions in supplemental war funding with little concern about corresponding offsets or oversight about how or where the money would be spent."
Stroud also said that his group would work to campaign against them in their next elections. "Our nation is still at war and those eight members failed to stand with wounded, ill and injured veterans," he said. "Failing to support America's veterans is as reprehensible as it is disgusting, and I hope all veterans, service members, their families, and every voting constituent in every home district and state remembers that. I guarantee that the VFW will do our best to remind them."
-- Bryant Jordan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org