Veterans

Senators push to advance sweeping veterans bill before July 4

As House Democrats staged a Wednesday sit-in Wednesday to force their chamber’s leaders to move on gun control legislation, on a group of senators took to the Senate floor there was in an attempt to jump-start sweeping veterans legislation that has stalled behind the scenes by their colleagues.

Multiple members of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee spent nearly an hour in the late afternoon arguing the full chamber needs to quickly vote on the pending Veterans First Act, a massive veterans omnibus authored by committee chairman Johnny Isakson, R-Ga.

The measure contains a host of new accountability rules and a dramatic expansion of caregiver support programs, but has been slowed in recent weeks by unidentified named senators. Isakson said he hopes to bring the measure to a full Senate vote in coming days, barring an objection from any of his colleagues.

"Three and a half weeks ago every member of our committee voted unanimously for the Veterans First bill," Isakson said. "Why? Because it first of all hits the heart and strikes the point we all know needs to be struck.

"Our veterans, who have served us, fought for us, risked their lives for us, deserve the respect, the treatment, and benefits they were promised when they signed up for duty."

The push has taken on new extra urgency in recent days after VA officials announced they will not enforce fast-track firing rules put in place by Congress in 2014. That announcement came after the because of Department of Justice Department raised concerns about the constitutionality of appeals options.

Critics have blasted the VA's that decision, and Isakson has argued that his measure offers is the only realistic path forward to provide a fixing to the problem. House lawmakers have offered separate accountability legislation, but VA officials this week endorsed Isakson’s proposal, calling it as a better solution.

Although less dramatic than the House sit-in, the Senate veterans bill debate interrupted unrelated work on a commerce appropriations measure. Committee ranking member Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said his colleagues need to move the measure ahead next week if they realistically hope to get a compromise bill through the House by the end of the year.

"We are not talking about handouts, we are talking about something veterans have earned, and that we keep faith with them," he said. "This measure is bipartisan. Nothing stands in its way. There is no reason that merits its being stopped or blocked."

Isakson’s bill has received heavy public criticism outside the Senate, from House members who say its firing authorities aren’t strong enough and from veterans groups who dislike that it calls for cutting using cuts to GI Bill housing stipends to pay for other program expansions.

But Isakson has said he sees the measure as a work in progress, and is anxious to get some version of the legislation over to the House to begin negotiations on a final omnibus agreement.

After this week, the Senate has only 12 legislative days scheduled before an extended election-year summer break starting July 15. The House is not scheduled to return to work until July 5, and will start their two-month break the same day.

Leo Shane III covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He can be reached at lshane@militarytimes.com.

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