As details of the turmoil within the Department of Veterans Affairs continue to unfold, Congress is scrambling to pass legislation to fix to the problem.
One House Republican accused Democrats of closing the barn door after the horse got out.
"It’s been more than 177 days since the House passed bipartisan legislation that would authorize these VA clinics," Rep. Bill Cassidy, R-La., said in a statement on June 5, 2014. "Only after news broke that our veterans are dying because of inadequate health care did Harry Reid and Senate Democrats take action. We need to continue working towards patient-centered solutions so all veterans have access to quality healthcare."
Is it true that Senate Democrats only moved to fund new veterans health clinics after the scandal broke in April?
In a word: No.
The bill Cassidy references is H.R. 3251, the Department of Veterans Affairs Major Medical Facility Lease Authorization Act of 2013. The bill, authored by Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., authorized the funding of 27 new Veterans Affairs health facilities around the country. On Dec. 10, 2013, the House passed the bill almost unanimously with a vote of 346 to 1. (Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-S.C., was the lone "no" vote.)
The bill stalled in the Senate. In fact, it never made it out of the Veterans' Affairs committee. But as is so often the case, the Senate was working on its own bill, and that one failed because Senate Republicans objected to it.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., introduced S. 1950, the Comprehensive Veterans Health and Benefits and Military Retirement Pay Restoration Act of 2014, on Jan. 16. (It would later be renumbered S. 1982). The scope of the bill was much broader than just funding 27 new VA health clinics. For example, it also included an expansion of physical and mental health benefits for some veterans and their families. Whereas Miller’s bill was nine pages, Sanders’ was 367 pages.
Republicans objected to several components of Sanders’ bill, including its funding mechanism. Sanders would pay for his bill with money that would have gone toward the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Republicans said those savings were already expected, so it wasn’t a real source of money. (For what it’s worth, the House bill did not really specify where its funding would be taken from.)
Republicans also hinged support for the bill on the inclusion of sanctions against Iran.
Democrats tried to bring Sanders’ bill up for a vote on Feb. 27. Republicans made a parliamentary maneuver that imposed a 60-vote threshold to bring it to the floor. With just 56 Senators voting "yea" — including two Republicans — the bill failed to advance.
Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., the ranking Republican on the Veterans' Affairs committee, said he was concerned about the costs and the expansion of the VA when there were already considerable problems with wait times.
In a press release, the American Legion lamented the bill’s failure.
"There was a right way to vote and a wrong way to vote today, and 41 senators chose the wrong way," American Legion National Commander Daniel Dellinger said. "That’s inexcusable."
That said, there wasn’t unanimous backing of the bill by veterans groups. In an op-ed, Stewart Hickey, national executive director for American Veterans, or AMVETS, said Sanders’ "kitchen sink-like" bill "would be morally irresponsible and fiscally unsound."
For the next couple months, Sen. David Vitter, R-La., and Sanders went back and forth on the status of the veterans bill. On March 11, Vitter offered an amendment to to the House bill that would pay for the new VA clinics through price controls for prescription drugs purchased by the Defense Department. Sanders said he supported the new clinics, but also wanted other provisions included in the comprehensive legislation.
On April 9, Miller, the chairman of the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs, announced that dozens of Arizona veterans died waiting for care from the VA, and he had evidence showing that administrators at the Phoenix office were forging wait times.
There were multiple points along the way when Sam Foote, a doctor of internal medicine at the Phoenix VA before he retired, attempted to blow the whistle on the bad practices in Arizona, including a December meeting with the Arizona Republic and a letter to the VA inspector general. But it wasn’t until Miller’s comments that the story broke and became a national scandal, eventually leading to the resignation of Veteran Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki.
Also on April 9, Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La. — who Cassidy is challenging for Senate in November — actually called for the House Republican bill to be discharged from the Senate Veteran Affairs committee. But that effort was blocked by Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, who asked for Vitter’s amendment to be included. Sanders objected.
"Both parties had a role in this," said Joe Davis, spokesman for Veterans of Foreign Wars.
A spokeswoman for Cassidy said the congressman was only referring to Senate inaction on the House measure in his statement. However, that isn’t how his statement reads. If that were the case, it would mean that Senate Democrats had decided to take up the House bill after the scandal hit, which isn’t true.
Cassidy said that "only after news broke that our veterans are dying because of inadequate health care did Harry Reid and Senate Democrats take action." That’s not accurate. Democrats tried to pass an expansive veterans’ bill that included funding for the same 27 new clinics that Cassidy and the House passed last December. The bill was blocked by Senate Republicans, who were concerned about its funding and its scope. They also wanted to include sanctions against Iran.
It’s fine for Cassidy to say Democrats bear some responsibility for not taking up the simpler House legislation, but it’s incorrect for him to claim that it took the scandal to propel Democrats into efforts to pass a VA bill. That’s revisionist history, so we rate Cassidy’s statement False.