Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) called a meeting of the House-Senate Veterans Affairs' conference committee Thursday and invited media to the meeting to highlight his proposed fix. The conference committee had been trying to reconcile existing competing VA measures in the House and Senate.
But Democrats largely didn't attend Thursday's open session, leading to name-calling and finger-pointing from the likes of House Speaker John Boehner and Senate VA Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), that seemed to put chances for a compromise in jeopardy. Sanders did not attend Miller's meeting. The only Democrat who did was Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick of Arizona.
Miller's plan gives the department $10 billion of emergency funds and allows the agency to contract out care and enter into new leasing agreements. Once the funds run out, Congress would go through the standard appropriation process to provide additional funds. Miller's bill does not include any offsets to pay for the $10 billion in new spending. Calling it emergency funding provides political cover for more conservative Republicans to go along with the plan, despite its lack of offsets.
The Miller proposal allows Congress to track how the $10 billion is used, and see if wait times go down as a result of the funding. An ongoing concern is that the VA's management, not a lack of funding, has largely caused the current crisis.
“If we throw money at this without oversight, not only would we have failed the taxpayer, we would have, most importantly, failed veterans,” Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) said during the meeting.
Sanders called a news conference a short time later, where he and the other Democrats said they did not attend Miller's meeting because it appeared Miller was offering a take-it-or-leave-it deal without being willing to hear other ideas.
Sanders introduced his own proposal that would achieve many of the same goals outlined by Miller, but cost $25 billion over three years. Sanders said that amount is less than Congressional Budget Office estimates of $35 billion to fund the current Senate VA proposal, and lower than the $44 billion price tag over five years proposed in a current House bill.
The VA, for its part, has requested $17.6 billion to hire thousands of doctors, nurses and other health professionals, lease new facilities and upgrade its computers. It says all those resources are needed to help reduce wait times.
Lawmakers in the House and Senate have said they don't trust that figure because the department hasn't provided an adequate breakdown of why that amount is needed, and as such, the request hasn't been included in the proposals circulating on the Hill.
Neither Miller nor Sanders released full texts of their proposals, so it's unclear, beyond their cost, what substantive differences exist between the two suggested fixes.
Miller wants to call a vote Monday on his proposal by the conference committee, so the House and Senate can sign off on a bill that can be sent to the president before Aug 1. But Sanders and Democratic lawmakers say they want to vote only on a measure that includes input from both sides of the aisle.
Follow Virgil Dickson on Twitter: @MHVDickson