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Senate vote to come soon on massive veterans' bill

Feb. 4, 2014 - 04:51PM   |  
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The Senate is poised to vote on a sweeping veterans’ benefits bill that addresses the gamut from education to military retirement pay reductions.

But whether the legislation has legs in the House — or with any Republican lawmakers — remains questionable.

Twenty veterans and military service organizations stood behind sponsor Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., on Tuesday in support of the legislation, S 1982, a nearly 400-page bill that Sanders described as having bipartisan appeal, addressing issues raised previously by legislators on both sides of the political aisle.

In the bill are provisions authorizing fertility services for severely wounded veterans, extending access to Veterans Affairs Department health care for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans from five years to 10, broadening care for military sexual assault victims and expanding the VA dental program, among others.

“We have a moral obligation to do everything that we can to help these veterans, and that’s what this legislation does,” Sanders said.

But while the bill is being fast-tracked to the Senate floor by Majority Leader Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., and is expected to come to a vote by next week, it currently has just 10 co-sponsors, all Democrats.

And while it contains several measures that previously have passed the House, including a requirement that public universities extend in-state tuition to veterans using their Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits — approved in the House on Monday by a vote of 390-0 — no Republicans have publicly supported the broader Sanders legislation.

On Tuesday, two veterans groups came out against the bill, citing concerns about its proposed funding source — diverted war appropriations — and comprehensive nature, which they described as “everything but the kitchen sink.”

Representatives of AMVETS and Concerned Veterans for America said their groups support the bill’s provision to repeal caps on annual cost-of-living increases in military retired pay, but feel the broader legislation would burden a VA that still has a backlog of 400,000 benefits claims and faces problems providing timely, adequate health care for its current beneficiaries.

“We’re opposed to the bill basically because it’s bad for veterans and bad for VA. It increases mission creep and reduces VA’s ability to properly serve veterans,” said Darin Senick, VA adviser for Concerned Veterans Of America.

To cover the bill’s estimated $30 billion cost over 10 years, bill supporters propose using the “peace dividend” for ending the war in Afghanistan.

The bill would establish spending caps for Overseas Contingency Operations approprations starting in 2018 and using the projected budget savings to pay for the legislation.

Sanders said the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimates that $1.025 trillion will be needed for overseas contingency operations in the next 10 years. But the Obama administration has projected that just $260 billion will be needed, meaning nearly $800 billion could be available for other purposes.

“Using 2 percent of the savings for ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to improve the lives of our veterans is the least we can do to protect those who have protected us,” Sanders said.

Numerous veterans’ groups stood by Sanders to support the legislation, including the Military Officers Association of America, the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, Disabled American Veterans and others.

Ray Kelley, legislative director for the VFW, said his group particularly supports a provision that authorizes new leases for several community-based outpatient clinics — a measure the VFW says will improve veterans’ access to health care by expanding facilities.

Alex Nicholson, Kelley’s counterpart with IAVA, said his organization is happy to see the provision that requires public universities to extend in-state tuition to veterans using their Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits.

“Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, after health care and after having their families taken care of, focus on education above any other benefit ... we want to see the [in-state tuition provision] passed as part of this bill. It’s the right thing to do for vets,” Nicholson said.

A procedural vote on the bill is expected later this week that could pave the way for the legislation to reach the Senate floor on Monday.

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