Democrats and Republicans are struggling to agree on how to pay for legislation that could cost between $25 billion and $30 billion. That logjam is transforming the VA debate from one that united both parties to yet another fiscal fight, prompting the same type of partisan finger pointing that has become familiar after years of budget showdowns. "They have walked away from it," Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said of House Republicans. "It's unfortunate, because we had a strong bipartisan vote, and that doesn't mean much to the House."
These days, it's awfully difficult for major legislation on high-profile issues to generate broad, bipartisan support on Capitol Hill. The parties are usually too far apart to build consensus and strike deals.
But in mid-June, the Senate nevertheless came together to support a bipartisan veterans-aid package, written by Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.). There was some token opposition from the far-right, but they were easily outnumbered -- the bill passed with a whopping 93 votes.
At the time, success seemed like a foregone conclusion. The VA scandal was literally front-page news and the demands for action were ubiquitous. When the Senate bill advanced on a 93-3 vote, many assumed the legislation would be on President Obama's desk within a week.
That was six weeks ago. House Republicans now appear ready to kill the bill altogether.
The bill is currently in a conference committee -- the process intended to reconcile competing bills from the House and Senate on the same subject. But in this case, the GOP-led House won't compromise.
Sanders, the chairman of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee, said yesterday House Republicans presented him with a "take-it-or-leave-it gambit," effectively telling the upper chamber to accept the GOP plan or the entire effort would die.
Sanders has offered a series of concessions, all of which have been deemed inadequate by House Republicans.
Any chance House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) might step in and show some leadership on this?
Apparently not. Asked about the bill at a press conference yesterday, Boehner told reporters, "We've got a systemic failure of an entire department of our government. And I think understanding just how sick this patient is is critically important, before we start doing what Washington usually does, and that's just throw money at the problem, throw money at the problem."
This suggests the Speaker doesn't understand the basics of the debate. The bipartisan veterans-aid package doesn't "just throw money at the problem." It expands VA health care access, tuition assistance, and job training to veterans -- just as the House bill does.
The reason the bill is dying has nothing to do with understanding "just how sick" the VA is and everything to do with a disagreement about finances. The fact that Boehner doesn't know this suggests the veterans-aid bill just isn't a high priority for him.
To be sure, the fight isn't necessarily over. As of yesterday, House Republicans weren't budging and the talks appeared to be unraveling, but there's still time for GOP lawmakers to change their minds and start negotiating in good faith.
But if that doesn't occur, it will reinforce a few key fears. First, there's an impression that congressional Republicans talk a good game when it comes to veterans, but when push comes to shove, they just don't follow through. It's happened before, and as of yesterday, it's happening again.
And second, when former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki resigned in late May, many warned that the political world would simply move on, losing interest in the entire story, and giving Congress an excuse to fail. Those warnings look quite prescient now.