The massive and controversial veterans omnibus bill is headed to the Senate floor after Senate Veterans Affairs Committee members unanimously backed the measure as a critical step forward in reforming VA operations.
The hastily organized vote came two weeks after committee leaders unveiled the plan, which legislation and could become the most significant piece of veterans reform legislation in two years, if it can survive an expected fight with House members in the weeks to come.
Committee Chairman Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., praised the unanimous vote as a sign of strong support for the measure and downplayed growing criticism about the provisions.
"Anybody can find a fault with a bill this comprehensive," he said. "I don't think we have all the good ideas. But we have to get the football in play and start moving down the field. I look forward to working with the House on all the things they have concerns about."
The legislation includes a massive expansion of VA’s program for caregivers of injured veterans, which offers provides stipends, health benefits and other support for those who provideing that full-time care.
Veterans groups have lauded that provision along with new assistance for homeless veterans, expansion of veterans eligible for education benefits, and improvements to health care programs.
But several have questioned the total cost of the measure, and whether committee estimates are realistic.
Isakson said the $4-billion-plus in program costs are covered through a series of savings measures, leaving the final bill with a surplus of more than $330 million. Official Congressional Budget Office scoring of the measure is expected out later this week.
The two most controversial aspects of the omnibus bill are its provisions dealing with VA employee accountability and its inclusion of a cut in GI Bill housing stipend growth. House lawmakers are threatening to sideline the measure over the former, while some veterans groups are demanding the removal of the latter.
Senators included in the omnibus VA leaders' plans to reclassify department senior executives to allow for faster hiring and firing of those positions, and give supervisors more flexibility on pay and work hours.
But the measure goes further on accountability issues, limiting the amount of time any VA employee can be placed on administrative leave and blocking bonuses for some workers.
It also gives broad power to VA leaders dismiss almost any employee. That's an effort to address past cases where workers who committed off-duty criminal acts stayed on the VA payroll, due to complicated firing rules.
Union leaders and the White House have objected to similar plans in the past, calling it an erosion of workers' rights. House lawmakers have indicated the Senate plan does not go far enough.
For example, under the Senate plan, disciplinary decisions which today can take more than 400 days to complete would be reduced to 110. The House plan trims that even further, to 52 days for appeals and rulings.
In addition, the House plan does not require any advance notice for disciplinary action and would significantly limit appeals.
But Isakson said the Senate plan has support from Senate Democrats on the committee, while the House accountability provisions saw little support from Democrats in that chamber. Whether that compromise will be enough to convince House Republicans to change their preference remains to be seen.
The education benefit cuts may be even more difficult to navigate. The bill generates about $3.4 billion in revenue by reducing the growth in student veterans' housing allowance in coming years.
The move brings the veterans benefit in line with Defense Department housing stipends, a move lawmakers initially planned last year but deferred until now. Students would not see a reduction in their housing payouts but would see their rate of growth shrink, until the stipend covers 95 percent of the average area housing cost.
Critics call that a cut to veterans education benefits, since the end result is students' housing payouts not fully keeping up with inflation. Student Veterans of America estimates the reductions will amount to an average loss of more than $800 when fully implemented in coming years.
"We at SVA would like to see the money from the (housing) reduction spent on GI Bill (programs)," the group said in a statement. "There is no reason why the burden of helping older veterans should fall on younger veterans."
Officials from Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, who earlier this year opposed House plans to half housing stipends for dependents of veterans using GI Bill benefits, went even further with their opposition.
"Our leaders in Congress and the White House cannot justify taking care of all veterans by breaking their promise to our new 'Greatest Generation' of veterans and their families," IAVA CEO Paul Rieckhoff said in a statement. "Especially as our brothers and sisters continue to fight and die overseas, the GI Bill is sacred."
But supporters note that the 5 percent reduction in housing stipend growth is essentially already a done deal in the eyes of Congress, since they already approved that reduction for active-duty servicemembers last year. This way, they argue, the money can go to other veterans programs instead of becoming lost revenue.
The American Legion, Paralyzed Veterans of America, Veterans of Foreign Wars, and Disabled American Veterans have all offered support for the measure, although not necessarily wholehearted endorsements of how the costs are covered.
No timeline has been set for when the measure will be brought to the full Senate for a vote.
Isakson and committee members had hoped to have the measure passed through Congress by Memorial Day, but concerns over the bill's provisions and conflicting legislative priorities may make passing the omnibus before Congress' summer break in July difficult.
Leo Shane III covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He can be reached at email@example.com.