With only a couple of weeks left before money runs out for the VA Choice program, the House Veterans' Affairs Committee Tuesday nudged the legislation forward despite formal objections from the committee's two top Democrats.
It's unclear whether the reforms will clear the Senate before the May 31 deadline, despite pressure on Congress from the Trump administration to pass the long-delayed changes.
Rep. Tim Walz of Minnesota, ranking Democrat on the House VA Committee, and Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.) opposed the VA Choice changes, signaling that the long-simmering tension between the Trump administration and Congress over the legislation linger as lawmakers press to get the bill to President Donald Trump's desk by the end of May.
Walz blamed the White House for strong-arming key Democratic requests that included a yearly VA review of the agency's decision to send veterans to community providers. Walz also wanted to exempt Choice funding from potential sequester cuts; the funding would move from mandatory to discretionary spending under the legislation.
"The White House objective is chaos," Walz said. "I don't know who is in charge up there."
Walz said that his complaints had nothing to do with the committee process and praised Chair Phil Roe (R-Tenn.) for the negotiating process, saying that 95% of the legislation followed the contours of the bicameral, bipartisan agreement. But the White House derailed provisions Walz believed would make it into the final text.
"It's my responsibility to continue to make the case that all pieces must be aligned to make the bill work in the long run," Walz said.
Roe rejected all the Democratic amendments on the grounds that they could upend the deal negotiated between Congress, the VA and the White House, whose officials have made the reforms a priority.
"Any amendments, no matter how worthy they may be, violate our negotiations and put us back to square one with three weeks to go before Choice runs out of money," Roe said.
As of deadline, top House GOP aides didn't have an estimate for when the VA Choice legislation will head to the House floor other than that it wouldn't happen this week. A White House aide said the administration wants the House to vote on the measure next week.
Acting VA Secretary Robert Wilkie warned lawmakers in a letter that the latest infusion of cash for the Choice program will run out by May 31, the deadline Trump has presented to Congress.
This ups the pressure for speed in the upper chamber, where the bill will require Democratic votes to clear the 60-vote threshold required for filibuster-proof legislation.
Senate VA Committee Chair Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) noted the potential difficulty with timing, as "around here, nothing's guaranteed."
On whether the measure would garner enough support, he said: "If we don't, I'd be surprised because everybody has had their input."
The committee's top Democrat, Sen. Jon Tester of Montana, said he doesn't yet know if all Senate Democrats are on board.
"It's a good bill, so we'll see," Tester said.
As of deadline, a spokesperson for Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) didn't respond to a request for comment on whether Democratic leadership will back the bill.
Roe announced one potential change to the package that won applause from everyone on his committee. He wants to name the legislation for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who is battling brain cancer, and retiring Rep. Sam Johnson (R-Texas).