House and Senate negotiators met Tuesday to try to hammer out a compromise bill to gain a handle on the reports of problems piling up at the VA, but they immediately began stumbling over the potential $50 billion-a-year price tag.
Some lawmakers questioned whether the Veterans Affairs Department’s problems could be solved by an infusion of cash, while others were skeptical of the official cost estimate from the Congressional Budget Office.
“This is ludicrous. It is impossible for us to even start an intelligent conversation on what we put in legislation when we have numbers that are so grotesquely out of line,” said Sen. Richard Burr, North Carolina Republican and ranking member of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs.
The House and Senate overwhelmingly passed legislation earlier this month to let veterans seek care outside the VA in certain circumstances as well as to increase accountability for senior executive employees. Both bills have a hefty price tag — the Congressional Budget Office estimated the Senate bill would cost at least $35 billion and up to $50 billion a year if fully implemented, and the House bill would cost about $44 billion.
Rep. Doug Lamborn, Colorado Republican, said the VA needs better accountability to fix cultural issues at the department and that additional funding isn’t sufficient.
“We can’t just fix the problem by simply throwing more money on it,” he said.
But Sen. Bernard Sanders, Vermont independent and head of the Senate negotiators, said the problems at the VA will require an infusion of cash, and Congress should be prepared to pony up for what is, in effect, a spending emergency.
“I think everyone in this room understands that the cost of war does not end when the last shots are fired and the last missiles are launched,” he said. “Taking care of veterans is a cost of war.”
He said the overwhelmingly bipartisan votes in the Senate — 93-3 on the bill itself and 75-19 to waive the requirement that spending bills include offsetting cuts — make it “crystal clear” that senators don’t want to be derailed by a price tag.
Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, agreed that the crisis at the VA is indeed an emergency, but he said that doesn’t excuse lawmakers from looking for a way to offset the changes.
“I think we should find ways to pay for these expenses. I would also argue if there’s ever such a thing as an emergency, it is this issue,” he said.
The bills both allow veterans to seek care outside the VA if they face long wait times or live more than 40 miles from a VA facility. The Senate bill would let vets go to private facilities if they had to wait more than 30 days, while the House bill only requires a wait of more than 14 days.