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Senate blocks huge vets benefits bill

Feb. 27, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
Sen. Bernie Sanders And Brad Sherman Announces Leg
'I thought that maybe, just maybe, the Senate could come together and do the right thing for our veterans. But, no,' said Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont, after his veterans bill failed to advance. (Mark Wilson / Getty Images)
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A massive veterans legislative package that would have expanded a host of post-military benefits was sidelined Thursday after Senate Democratic backers failed to find enough support among their Republican colleagues.

A procedural motion to cut off debate and allow the bill to move to a floor vote fell short by four votes, with all but two Republicans voting along party lines. Bill sponsor Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, called the defeat a frustrating disappointment and vowed to find a way to guide the measure through Congress this year.

“I thought that maybe, just maybe, the Senate could come together and do the right thing for our veterans,” he told reporters after the vote. “But, no.”

The vote came after three days of debate on the Senate floor — much of it focusing on what topics should be debated. Each day, Sanders implored his colleagues to focus on the veterans bill and avoid offering unrelated amendments.

But Republicans shifted much of the floor focus to new sanctions on Iran for its nuclear program, a move opposed by the White House, and continued objections to portions of the Affordable Care Act.

They also criticized plans to pay for the veterans bill with expiring overseas contingency funds, labeling it a budget gimmick that creates more long-term spending without a real offset.

“That is more money we were going to spend that we haven’t spent, that we never had because we were borrowing it, and now we are going to use it to expand this,” said Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., senior Republican on the Veterans’ Affairs Committee.

Both sides accused the other of attempting to paint their opposition as anti-veteran. Veterans groups, in turn, labeled the fight another Washington embarrassment.

“The partisanship that has trumped most political action in Washington has left this important veterans legislation in its wake,” Paralyzed Veterans of America National President Bill Lawson said in a statement. “We are deeply disappointed that the Senate could not set aside its differences to support the men and women who have already sacrificed so much for this country.”

Paul Rieckhoff, CEO of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, was even blunter: “Republicans blame Democrats. Democrats blame Republicans. And veterans are caught in the crossfire.”

Sanders’ comprehensive legislative package was introduced in January as a vehicle to repeal unpopular trims in military retirement pay. But Congress overturned those cuts earlier in February in a separate vote, sapping much of the political urgency out of the omnibus bill.

It contained a host of benefits and program changes advocated by veterans groups, including improved services for military sexual assault victims, new fertility treatment options for wounded veterans and an extension of health care coverage for recently returned veterans.

Several provisions had received bipartisan support, such as language to ensure in-state tuition rates for all Post-9/11 GI Bill users, regardless of where they live. That move could save veterans using the benefit to attend out-of-state public schools tens of thousands of dollars in tuition costs.

But the bill also had a hefty price tag. The Congressional Budget Office originally estimated its cost at $21 billion over 10 years, but the removal of the retirement issue would drop the total to about $15 billion over the next decade.

Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C., planned to offer companion legislation to Sanders’ Senate bill with tweaks in how the overseas contingency funds are used to cover the bill’s costs.

But its fate remained unclear. Despite passing portions of the Sanders’ bill as stand-alone measures, House Republicans have not offered support for the whole package, expressing skepticism about using the expiring war funds to pay for the new programs and benefits.

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