Massive veterans bill heading toward Senate vote
By GREGG ZOROYA | USA TODAY | Published: February 24, 2014
What has been characterized as the most sweeping veterans legislation in decades could reach the Senate floor for a vote as early as Tuesday.
The legislation authored by Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Vermont independent who chairs the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee, contains 143 provisions and would cost more than $30 billion.
With a long title — the Comprehensive Veterans Health and Benefits and Military Retirement Pay Restoration Act of 2014 — the bill, among other things, includes: restoring cost-of-living increases for military retiree pensions; expanding Department of Veterans Affairs health care, allowing the VA to acquire 27 new medical facilities and paying for reproductive services for 2,300 troops wounded in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
It would expand compensation for family caregivers of disabled veterans — something now provided for veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan — to families of veterans of all wars.
Nearly all veteran organizations support the bill.
But it is not without controversy, variously described as landmark legislation necessary to serve every generation of America's 22 million veterans; and as a vehicle for politically embarrassing Republicans who may choose to vote against it because of how it's funded.
Some $21 billion of the bill's cost comes from roughly $1 trillion the federal government would be allowed by law to spend fighting terrorism over the next 10 years.
"I would argue that if we put aside money for war, we are also putting aside money for those people hurt in those wars," Sanders says. "That's a very consistent and reasonable argument."
According to the Congressional Budget Office, the $1 trillion — known as Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) funding — is a projection based solely on what was spent in 2014, when troops are still fighting in Afghanistan.
Republicans argue that President Obama intends to withdraw troops from Afghanistan at the end of this year and OCO funding will drop precipitously.
Rep. Jeff Miller, a Florida Republican and chairman of the House Veterans' Affairs committee, said there is "some excellent legislation" in Sanders' bill.
But, he said, "I did tell (Sanders) that I had a concern with using overseas contingency operations funds as an offset. While it works on paper, the true funding that would have to be found would have to come from other areas, including the Department of Defense, which has already taken a very large hit."
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel today announced cuts to the military that include reducing the Army to its smallest size since before World War II.
With tight Senate races in the fall, the bill that Senate Majority Leader, Harry Reid, is moving to the floor possibly as soon as Tuesday could force Republicans into the difficult political position of voting against veteran issues.
Sanders did not put his bill up for a vote within his committee.