- Associated Press - Tuesday, September 29, 2015

DENVER (AP) - Congress could wrap up an agreement by Wednesday that finally clears the way to finish an over-budget medical center outside Denver after months of wrangling and recriminations.

The deal that emerged Tuesday would allow the Veterans Affairs Department to transfer $625 million to complete the hospital from other accounts within its budget.

It would also put the Army Corps of Engineers in charge of future VA construction projects costing $100 million or more in hopes of avoiding another blunder of this magnitude.

“It effectively keeps them (the VA) out of the hospital construction business,” said Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo.

The deal probably won’t require the VA to take $200 million of the money from its employee bonus budget, as House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller proposed, Coffman said.

“I like the proposal by Chairman Miller,” but the Senate was unlikely to go along, Coffman said.

Coffman said it was a relief to have an agreement within reach. He and other members of Colorado’s congressional delegation have been trying for months to engineer a deal to finish the hospital, which is now expected to cost nearly $1.7 billion - almost triple the estimate of a year ago.

A Corps of Engineers investigation into what went wrong said the VA repeatedly changed the design and square footage of the hospital. The corps also said the VA also used a complicated contract process that department officials didn’t understand, and that they adopted it too late in the process, leading to disputes and conflicting cost estimates.

Construction has been creeping along under a series of temporary funding measures while Congress struggled to come up with a deal.

The agreement now taking shape requires the House and Senate to take two votes each: One to raise the spending cap and another to allow the VA to transfer the $625 million. Language approving the transfers is part of a stop-gap measure to keep the government running past Wednesday.

The Senate approved the higher spending cap Friday and could vote on the stop-gap spending bill Wednesday. The House could vote on both the spending cap and the stop-gap funding bill Wednesday.

The VA would also be required to get permission from the House and Senate veterans committees on specifics of the transfers.

The House and Senate panels have held hearings on the overruns, and lawmakers have demanded the VA fire those responsible. The VA is investigating and says one senior executive on the project retired a day after he was questioned under oath. Others have been transferred or demoted.

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


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