Will partisanship derail veterans benefits bill?

By: CBS
By: CBS

Washington, DC (CBS) - The Senate is preparing to tackle a major veterans bill this week, a process that will test whether the chamber is still stuck in a feud over a rules change last fall that reduced the power of the Republican minority.

The Comprehensive Veterans Health and Benefits and Military Retirement Pay Restoration Act of 2014 would greatly expand aid and other programs to America’s veterans by increasing eligibility for Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) health care, opening new facilities, restoring full cost-of-living increases to military retiree pensions, expanding education programs and even offering reproductive treatment and adoption assistance for severely wounded veterans, among other things.

The legislation comes at a time when the VA has been plagued by backlogs that have only increased since the start of President Obama’s administration. According to an annual report from the VA, it took an average of 378 days in 2013 for the department to process a claim to completion. A claim is considered backlogged if it has been pending for longer than 125 days. The bill will take steps to deal with the backlog.

As of Monday evening, the bill had 23 Democratic co-sponsors, according to the office of Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., the author of the bill and chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs. He’s currently working to find Republican support for the measure, which will cost approximately $21 billion over the next decade.

Supporting veterans is hardly a politically risky proposition. In fact, it would likely be more difficult for lawmakers to vote against the measure, considering it has the support of several major veterans groups including The American Legion, Vietnam Veterans of America and Veterans of Foreign Wars. VFW National Commander William Thien called it, “the most comprehensive veterans’ legislation to be introduced in decades” when the group backed the bill last month.

Republicans are concerned about two issues. First is the way it is paid for: a large chunk of the bill’s funding comes from the $1 trillion in federal funds that the government is authorized to spend over the next 10 years to fight terrorism. Sanders argues that it’s fair to use war funds to pay for people who are hurt in those wars; Republicans say there aren’t real savings achieved by the bill because that funding wouldn’t have been spent as America’s commitments abroad wind down in the coming years.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., told the Associated Press it was “an illusionary pay-for.”

He’s not alone in his concern. American Veterans executive director Stewart Hickey said in a statement that the bill would be “morally irresponsible and fiscally unsound” because of where the funding comes from. They also argue the bill simply aims to do too much.

“Before over­com­mit­ting the Depart­ment of Vet­er­ans Affairs and sub­ject­ing our vet­er­ans to more bro­ken promises, Con­gress should rally on leg­is­la­tion that keep the promises already made,” Hickey said.

The other issue is one that has held up other legislation this year, including an extension of emergency unemployment benefits: amendments. Republicans want the chance to give their input on the bill and how it is paid for, something Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has resisted.

Reid hasn’t publicly announced whether he’ll allow amendments on the legislation but there are already signs that a refusal could kill its chances in the Senate even if it clears an initial procedural hurdle.

"I think I have as good a knowledge of veterans issues as Sen. Sanders does, so therefore, I think I should be able to debate and amend as I choose to do so," Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., told the Associated Press. "If Senator Reid blocks that ability, then I'm not conducive to allowing just a rubberstamp to take place."

There is some Republican support – just not where it matters for the debate at hand. Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C., has plans to introduce the bill in the House of Representatives on Tuesday.
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