WASHINGTON — A sweeping proposal to revamp the Department of Veterans Affairs and the nation's medical care for military veterans should have enough support to pass the House and Senate this week before lawmakers leave town for a summer recess, lead negotiators said Monday.
The assurances provided a hopeful start to a week in which congressional leaders are expected to resolve several lingering issues before lawmakers head home for their five-week summer break. In addition to approving changes to veterans' medical care, negotiators are working on deals to continue federal funding for the nation's major road projects and whether to grant President Barack Obama's request for billions of dollars to deal with the historic influx of illegal immigrants along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Members of both parties have been warning for weeks that leaving Washington before responding to allegations of mismanaged or delayed care at VA medical facilities nationwide would reflect poorly on Congress.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., who chair the Senate and House veterans' affairs committees, announced a final agreement Monday afternoon, capping more than a month of talks. The talks continued over the weekend, and both sides acknowledged Monday that neither got exactly what it wanted.
"Whether you're a conservative Republican or a progressive, people understand that this issue should and must go beyond politics," Sanders said. "We have people who have put their lives on the line who have come back with a whole lot of problems, and it would be an absolute disgrace to this country if we did not address them."
Miller said the legislation reflects that "The VA is not sacred, the veteran is."
The agreement includes $17 billion in new spending for medical care, the hiring of new doctors, nurses and specialists and construction projects and leases for at least 27 new facilities in more than a dozen states. Of that total, $12 billion is new, emergency spending and $5 billion will come from spending cuts across the VA system. Most of the money, $10 billion, will be set aside to help pay for medical care provided to veterans outside the VA system.
Responding to concerns that too many veterans have waited too long to see a VA medical professional, eligible veterans will be able to seek non-VA care if they have waited more than 30 days for an appointment or if they live more than 40 miles from the nearest VA facility.
Republicans had sought the change, arguing that the federal government shouldn't force veterans to seek government-paid care from government providers. But neither Sanders nor Miller could predict how many veterans might seek care outside the system.
"I don't believe that there will be a flight of all of the veterans out of the system, but we don't know until we start this program to see how veterans are actually going to act," Miller said.
The other big reform in the package are rules changes that would allow VA administrators to immediately fire poor-performing employees. Those workers would have about a month to seek an appeal of the decision.
Miller said he expected that the legislation would enjoy enough GOP support in the House despite the new, enormous cost of reforming the department.
"Taking care of our veterans is not an inexpensive proposition, and our members understand that," he said.
As Congress prepares to approve changes at the VA, attention will shift to other topics.
First, federal funding for major road construction projects is considered another "must pass" issue as Americans continue hitting the road for summer vacations. The House has approved a measure extending funding for nine months, and leadership aides said Monday that the Senate is expected to approve the measure by Thursday. First, senators will vote on at least four amendments — including some that would shorten the length of the deal in order to force debate on a longer-term deal before the end of the calendar year.
But the amendments are expected to fail to earn the 60 votes needed to amend the bill, according to the aides, who were not authorized to speak publicly about the Senate's plans.
Then there's the crisis of child immigration at the border.
With a historic number of illegal immigrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico line, the House and Senate are expected to debate competing measures this week that would provide some, but not all of the $3.7 billion in emergency funding that Obama requested.
The House plan is expected to cost about $1 billion and would come with strings attached — changes to a 2008 anti-trafficking law that would require the Obama administration to more quickly process and deport most of the younger Central American immigrants as quickly as Mexicans are sent home.
But that deal is a no-go for most congressional Democrats, who say that such changes would only endanger children escaping drug-induced violence in their home countries. Some Republicans also might vote against the measure because they oppose providing any more funding to deal with illegal immigrants.
In the Senate, Democrats are expected to try approving about $2.5 billion in emergency funding with no changes in current immigration policy. But it is unclear whether Democrats will be able to secure enough GOP support to clear procedural hurdles and move a bill to final passage.
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Even if the chambers pass competing measures, significant differences on price and policy likely would make it difficult to reach a deal by Thursday night, when both chambers are expected to adjourn. That would mean a significant cash shortfall for the departments of Homeland Security, Justice and Health and Human Services as they continue dealing with the immigrant influx.
Before the House adjourns, Republicans also plan to call a vote on a measure authorizing a lawsuit against Obama for his use of executive actions to tweak elements of the Affordable Care Act.
Authorizing the lawsuit is expected to be the last official action of outgoing Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., who is vacating his leadership post Friday but plans to serve out the remainder of his term after losing his party's primary last month.