The House on Tuesday passed sweeping veterans suicide prevention legislation as one of its final legislative acts of the year, but the measure still faces an uncertain fate in the Senate.
The Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention bill, named for a Marine veteran activist who took his own life in 2011, would improve access to mental health care for troops and veterans, enhance Veterans Affairs Department recruiting efforts for psychiatrists, and mandate evaluations of existing prevention programs to iensure their effectiveness.
House lawmakers approved the measure by a simple voice vote without objection, calling the legislation a critical outreach effort to veterans in need.
But whether the bill becomes a last-minute triumph for veterans advocates or another gridlock disappointment will depend on whether the Senate also can approve the measure by the end of the week.
Senate leaders have not yet committed to a vote on the bill, despite bipartisan support, and veterans advocates worry that the $22 million price tag could raise objections from some conservative members.
Paul Rieckhoff, founder of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, called the House passage "a major step forward in the fight to end veterans suiccide" but acknowledged that the partial victory will not amount to much without Senate action.
"We need the Senate to step up and follow the House's lead," he said in a statement. "Twenty-two veterans continue to die by suicide each day. Our veterans deserve the 21st Ccentury care we promised them when they put on the uniform.
Susan Selke, Hunt's mother, lobbied lawmakers for months on the issue and on Tuesday said she has no doubt its passage into law will save lives.
"Veterans who are struggling don't have time to wait," she said in a statement.
The Senate is scheduled to wrap up its work for the year in the next few days. Lawmakers already face a packed legislative calendar with the annual defense authorization bill, a budget resolution to keep government operations funded through the end of the year, and a host of other wrap-up measures.
If the suicide prevention measure fails to become law this year, supporters have vowed to reintroduce the bill next year. But they also note that delay could mean hundreds more veterans lost to suicide while the reforms languish on Capitol Hill.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.