Democrats’ plans to expand education and health benefits for veterans died in the Senate on Thursday after Republicans blocked the bill for not having a funding source and thus busting the budget all sides agreed to just two months ago.
Sen. Bernard Sanders, Vermont independent and chairman of the Veterans Affairs Committee, vowed to try again later. But without finding substantial spending cuts elsewhere, it’s unclear he’ll have any better luck.
“I don’t know why we have a Congress, why we pass laws that say we’re only going to spend so much money and then we waltz in a few weeks later and spend billions more than we agreed to and, oh, we’ll just waive the budget we just passed,” said Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, who led the Republican resistance.
Two Republicans did vote with 54 Democrats, but that left them still four votes shy of the 60 needed to waive the budget and advance the bill.
The 367-page bill would have expanded education benefits for survivors and new veterans, worked to reduce the Veterans Affairs claims backlog and opened VA care to more veterans. It was paid for primarily through war money that will not be spent as troops pull out of Afghanistan, which Republicans say is a gimmick.
Mr. Sanders acknowledged that the $21 billion price tag isn’t cheap, but said that pales in comparison to the cost of war for veterans and families who have sacrificed so much for the country. He painted the decision before colleagues as a choice between veterans and the wealthy.
“If you happen to meet a veteran who is trying to get by on $28,000, $30,000, $35,000 a year and you notice that the teeth in his mouth are rotting I want you to go up to that veteran and have the courage, the honesty to tell him that you believe the United States of America does not have the money to take care of his needs,” Mr. Sanders said. “But explain to him why you may have voted for more than $100 billion in tax breaks for the wealthiest.”
He said he’ll continue trying to win more Republican support, saying “we are not going to give up on our veterans, and at some point we are going to pass this legislation.”
The two Republicans who voted with Democrats to waive the budget agreement were Sens. Dean Heller of Nevada and Jerry Moran of Kansas.
While the veterans bill died over budget questions, Republicans had also objected to Democrats’ decision to block out all amendments to it, thus denying Republicans a chance to debate stiffer sanctions on Iran’s nuclear program.
Republicans have been trying to force a vote on sanctions for months, and have been seeking any opportunity. In response, Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, has locked out amendments from either party, further hurting chances for cooperation.
Veterans’ groups called for Congress to focus on helping veterans, not partisan political games, and criticized senators for their “shenanigans” after the vote on Thursday.
“Republicans blame Democrats. Democrats blame Republicans. And veterans are caught in the crossfire,” said Paul Rieckhoff, founder of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. “Veterans don’t have time for this nonsense.”
Sen. Richard M. Burr, North Carolina Republican, wanted to offer an alternative to Mr. Sanders’ bill that included increased sanctions on Iran if it backs out of an interim agreement to scale back its nuclear weapon research.
Republicans said if Mr. Reid had allowed a vote on Iran sanctions, it would pass with overwhelming bipartisan support. Mr. Reid, however, has said he wants to give President Obama room to conduct diplomacy without having Congress interfere.