A few months ago, Senate Democrats rallied behind a bill proposed by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), which would have expanded VA health care access, tuition assistance, and job training. The bill enjoyed the support of most senators and was endorsed by the major veterans’ groups.
Senate Republicans, citing the deficit and extraneous concerns, opposed the bill, blocked a vote on it, and offered no alternative.
Quite a bit changed in the three months since. Now, however, a VA scandal has captured national attention and the political will for assisting veterans suddenly has broad support. Indeed, less than a week after a bipartisan veterans’ aid bill came together, it’s already passed the upper chamber.
Sponsored by Sens. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and John McCain, R-Ariz., the bill seeks to allocate resources for 26 new VA facilities in 18 states, as well as $500 million to hire more doctors and nurses, among other provisions. Its passage comes one day after the House unanimously approved a nearly identical bill.“Our job is to make certain that every veteran in the country gets quality health care in a timely manner,” Sanders said in a statement after the vote. “At a time when 2 million more veterans have come into the VA in the last four years, we must ensure that there are enough doctors, nurses and other health care professionals to meet the needs of veterans in every facility in the country.”
The bill will now go to a conference committee, but everyone involved believes an agreement will come together quickly and a bill will be on President Obama’s desk by next week. There is no doubt the president will sign it. Roll Call cited this as an example of lawmakers moving “at warp speed.”
But before we move on, let’s pause to note the final roll call on the Senate vote itself: it was 93 to 3, with four senators missing the vote. In an era of stark partisan differences, it’s arguably a refreshing change when a bipartisan spending bill can pass, with remarkable speed, with 93 votes.
There is, however, a quick follow-up question: three senators opposed a bipartisan veterans’ aid package? Who would do that?
In this case, all three opponents of the VA bill were conservative Republican senators: Jeff Sessions of Alabama, Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, and Bob Corker of Tennessee.
Corker said he voted against the veterans’ benefits because the aid might increase the deficit. Johnson said he sees the VA system as “broken,” and he apparently doesn’t want to invest in improving it.
And Sessions said he was principally concerned about budget caps, which the veterans’ bill ignores under “emergency” conditions.
“There’s some good things in the bill. I really think there are,” the Alabama senator said. “But I have to say that I cannot suggest to my colleagues that the budget violations now before us should be waived. They should not.”
Keep in mind, these three Republicans knew the bill would pass easily, but voted against it to make a statement – they’re concerned about helping veterans, but they’re really concerned about the deficit (which is shrinking quickly) and spending levels (which have been stagnant).