Construction of the embattled Denver Veterans Affairs hospital is safe for now, but the goodwill that VA officials have tried to build with Congress over the last year appears to be in ruins.
On Friday, the Senate finalized emergency legislation to increase spending authority for the overdue and over budget Colorado medical center, allowing work to continue for a few more weeks while the search for a long-term fix continues.
It was a partial victory for VA officials, who had pleaded with Congress for spending relief to keep subcontractors from walking off the job for the second time in six months, a move that at best would have added millions more in new costs and at worst could have shuttered the nearly $1 billion unfinished project.
But the move came only after a weeklong flurry of heated exchanges between VA officials and Republicans on Capitol Hill, each group accusing the other of imperiling health care for tens of thousands of Colorado veterans.
Both House Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., and Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., accused the VA (and White House) of failing to accept responsibility for the project ballooning more than $1 billion over budget.
VA Secretary Bob McDonald issued multiple statements saying that veterans "deserve better" than the political games of lawmakers.
Now, with only enough budget flexibility for a few weeks, the two sides will have to come together again and negotiate a solution for the project, despite the acrimony.
McDonald had promised a better working relationship with lawmakers at his confirmation last July, and worked in the early months of his tenure last fall to build up better communication between VA and Capitol Hill.
But since late 2014, much of the communication between the two has been adversarial, with lawmakers hammering the department on ongoing wait time issues, a lack of employee firings and questionable bonuses for VA executives.
In February, McDonald and Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo., got into a blistering argument during a congressional hearing over the Denver construction problems, which sparked condemnations of both men from outside groups.
Earlier this month the House Veterans' Affairs Committee, on a bipartisan, unanimous vote, subpoenaed VA records related to over prescribing of certain drugs at a Wisconsin VA medical center, a move they said came after repeated failures by the department to produce documents for congressional oversight.
During last week's Denver discussions, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, criticized VA leaders for "arrogance" in not addressing departmental problems that allow veterans "to be lied to, ignored, and left to die."
Lawmakers reached a short-term deal May 21 to avert a work stoppage on a troubled veterans hospital in Aurora, Colo., seen here in a drawing.
Photo Credit: Department of Veterans Affairs
For their part, VA officials insist they've acknowledged past mistakes but have been stymied by Congress in attempts to make fixes.
They say lawmakers have ignored their concerns about incomplete legislative fixes and have blocked new funding flexibility. In April, McDonald blasted a House budget plan for fiscal 2016 as potentially harmful to veterans because of what he said were shortsighted cuts made by appropriators.
The temporary fix to the Denver construction fight came just days before the one-year anniversary of former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki's resignation from the post, in the wake of nationwide revelations about lengthy wait times at VA facilities and dozens of records manipulation cases to cover up the problem.
At the time, President Obama said the move was spurred by fears that Shinseki — the longest-serving VA secretary since the department's reorganization in the 1980s — "would be a distraction" during reform efforts, given that almost a quarter of congressional members had called for his firing.
Now, McDonald has a Capitol Hill firestorm of his own.
Following the Senate vote last week on the Denver hospital authorization, McDonald said he was "pleased" with the move and that he looks forward to "working with Congress in the coming weeks to determine a path forward to finishing the campus."
The new funding fix is expected to last until mid-June.