- Associated Press - Sunday, May 31, 2015

AURORA, Colo. (AP) - Congress will insist on significant changes in the Veterans Affairs Department before approving money to finish a vastly over-budget medical center outside Denver, Rep. Mike Coffman said Sunday.

After a brief but boisterous veterans’ rally to demand the hospital be finished, Coffman said he was optimistic Congress will approve a long-term deal to pay for the project.

“I know it’s a heavy lift, but I’m optimistic,” said Coffman, a Republican whose district includes the hospital.

About 150 people attended the rally, some riding motorcycles and others leaning on canes. They chanted and cheered in a parking lot across a side street from the half-finished complex in suburban Aurora.

The project is expected to cost $1.73 billion, nearly three times last year’s estimate. Completion isn’t expected until 2017.

The VA is struggling to persuade Congress to approve up to $830 million to finish it.

Lawmakers are demanding the department fire those responsible for the overruns and change the way it handles big construction projects. Coffman and others want the VA to turn over supervision of high-dollar projects to the Army Corps of Engineers, which is now in charge of day-to-day decisions at the Aurora site.

The new medical center will replace an old, crowded facility in Denver.

Only a short-term deal approved by lawmakers nine days ago is keeping the money flowing. Unless a new agreement is reached by about June 12, the project will reach its current spending cap of $900 million and construction could stop.

Coffman said he has been in contact with leaders of his party - which controls both the House and Senate - about reaching a new agreement. Any deal to avoid a shutdown will likely come at the last minute, just like it did the last time around, on May 22, he said.

Democratic U.S. Rep. Ed Perlmutter reminded the crowd Sunday that it had been so long since the ceremonial ribbon-cutting on the site in 2002 that the veterans’ slogan had evolved from “Build the damn thing” to “Finish the damn thing.”

The crowd shouted the new slogan at least 10 times.

Steven Rylant, president of the United Veterans Committee of Colorado, which organized the rally, told Coffman and Perlmutter not to criticize the VA but to focus on what they were doing to get the hospital funded.

“We’re not here to beat up on the VA,” Rylant said. “There’s plenty of people doing that.”

Someone in the crowd yelled, “Let’s beat up on them anyway!”


Follow Dan Elliott at https://twitter.com/DanElliottAP

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