Gazette opinion: Will Senate put vacation before veterans?

Billings Gazette

by Editorial Board

Fresh from their Independence Day holidays, members of Congress are scheduled to be working in Washington for less than two weeks. Their long summer recess is on the calendars for July 15 through Sept. 5.

Whatever Congress fails to do by the end of next week won’t get done at least until September. There are precious few work days in the Capitol after Labor Day. It’s election year and politicians are anxious to go back to campaigning for re-election.

Among the many important legislative jobs left undone at this writing is improving U.S. veterans health care. The Senate Veterans Affairs Committee gave strong bipartisan support to S.2921, the Veterans First Act, in mid-May. The bill is sponsored by Committee Chairman Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., and cosponsored by the ranking Committee Democrat, Sen. Jon Tester of Montana. The bill has 48 cosponsors, including Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont.

Yet this broadly popular, bipartisan legislation that addresses problems with veterans’ access to care, health care professional shortages, caregiver support, disability services, education and other veteran needs is stuck. It hasn’t been brought to the Senate floor for a vote – and time is running out.

Even after the Senate votes, the veterans legislation will have to go to a conference committee to reconcile differences with a multitude of House bills. The Senate bill put the various veterans’ service upgrades into one bill.

“Despite receiving support from every senator on the Veterans Affairs Committee, the Veterans First Act is now being held up by one senator who is blocking the bill,” Tester wrote in a Gazette guest opinion published Thursday.

Arcane Senate rules allow a single member to block any bill. This is usually done without the objecting senator publicly announcing the hold. In this case, the hold is from Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.

We don’t know why McCain, a veteran and former POW, would block the Veterans First Act. But we do know that this legislation must pass the Senate before Congress leaves for vacation.

VFW, DAV speak up

“VFW strongly supports the Veterans First Act,” Joe Davis, VFW director of public affairs, told The Gazette this week. “We want it done before the Senate recesses.”

The Disabled American Veterans “is definitely supportive of this major piece of legislation,” said Joy Ilem, DAV national legislative director in Washington, D.C. The DAV issued a member alert on its website that has generated more than 4,000 emails from disabled veterans calling on senators to move forward with S.2921.

“Everybody’s frustrated,” Ilem said. “There’s a short window of opportunity.”

Although the Senate bill has broad support, Ilem said that House bills include more accountability measures aimed at firing VA employees, withholding bonuses, encouraging whistleblowers and other provisions that would affect employees’ due process.

It would be outrageous if legislation that would help millions of American veterans is being delayed because it doesn’t penalize VA employees. Who would really be penalized by such a delay?

Tester, Daines support

It’s good to see that both Montana senators are strong supporters of the Veterans First Act. We call on Tester and Daines to work with their colleagues to overcome all obstacles to passing this bill before July 15.

It would still take a miracle for veterans’ legislation to reach the president’s desk this summer. But if the Senate delays past next week, veterans will wait till year’s end – or next year.

In a statement issued Wednesday, DAV Washington Executive Director Garry J. Augustine agreed with overall conclusions of the just-finalized Commission on Care report, but disagreed with some of its conclusions saying: “VA provides high quality health care but has challenges providing access to all veterans seeking care. VA provides high quality health care but has challenges providing access to all veterans seeking care.”

That’s what Montana veterans generally report: The problem is timely access; care usually is very good when the veteran can get it. The U.S. Senate must not exacerbate unconscionable delay in care for American veterans.