- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 25, 2014

The Senate voted Tuesday to move forward with a broad rewrite of American policy toward veterans, but the bill faces a number of hurdles — not least an insistence by the Republican minority that Congress find a new way to pay for the $21 billion in additional spending.

The Senate voted 99-0 to head off an early filibuster of the measure, though opponents could get a second chance at stalling action on the bill later in the process.

“We still have a very, very long way to go if we are to keep faith with those who have put their lives on the line to defend us,” Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Bernard Sanders, Vermont independent, said Tuesday on the floor. “[I hope] we will tell the American people that in the midst of all of the partisanship, all of the politics, that on this one issue we can stand together to protect the interests of those people who have sacrificed so much for our country.”

Mr. Sanders’ bill pays for the $21 billion in additional spending by extending some cuts to other veterans’ services and by counting money that no longer will be spent as the war in Afghanistan winds down.

But Republicans argue that it’s a gimmick because that spending is already scheduled to drop dramatically when more troops come home.

“That’s war money that we were going to spend, that we didn’t spend, but that we never had,” said Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina, the ranking Republican on the Veterans’ Affairs Committee. “It’s one-time funding for a permanent program.”

The bill would make large changes in education benefits for new veterans and their survivors, improve health care services and try to fix the Veterans Affairs claims process to reduce the backlog.

Among other items in the bill is a pilot program to provide gym memberships for obese veterans who don’t live near any base fitness centers.

The bill also would open up VA coverage to more veterans — something Republicans said could lead to longer wait times for injured and low-income veterans already receiving care.

“We come to the floor with a massive expansion at a time when we can’t even care for what we’re doing,” said Sen. Tom Coburn, Oklahoma Republican, who pointed specifically to veterans who have died of cancer while waiting for early diagnostic care such as colonoscopies.

The Senate voted just a day after Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel outlined a long-term budget for the Pentagon calling for significant cuts as the U.S. military winds down major deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan. In addition to hardware and personnel cuts, Mr. Hagel said he wants to rein in pay and benefits, including housing allowances, commissary subsidies and Tricare health care benefits.

Alex Nicholson, the legislative director for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said many of the provisions in the Senate bill have passed committees with bipartisan support and lawmakers should try to change items they don’t like in the bill rather than stalling the entire proposal.

“The fact that people have issues with small aspects of a large bill should not be cause for them to oppose the entire bill. If they would like to propose amendments, alternative ‘pay-fors’ or say this being changed would get our support, that would be more helpful,” he said. “To oppose the entire bill because you have small tweaks you want made or you want it paid for in a different way is ridiculous and not helpful at all.”

Mr. Nicholson said two important changes in the bill would open up in-state tuition rates to new veterans, and guarantee continued VA funding even if there is another government shutdown.

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