VA bill hits deadlock in U.S. Congress over $15 billion gap

WASHINGTON, July 24 Thu Jul 24, 2014 6:07pm EDT

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WASHINGTON, July 24 (Reuters) - Negotiations over legislation to ease the Veterans Affairs health-care crisis broke down on Thursday as leaders of the House and Senate veterans committees rolled out competing proposals with a $15 billion gap between them.

Instead of working out their differences, Senator Bernie Sanders, an independent, and Republican Representative Jeff Miller criticized each other in public statements for failing to negotiate.

Miller hastily called a meeting of negotiators to introduce his bill but it was boycotted by Democrats, who called it a "stunt" aimed at pushing his plan through quickly.

"What he's saying is take it or leave it," Sanders said of Miller.

With just five legislative days before Congress starts a five-week recess on August 1, the bluster on Capitol Hill increased the chances lawmakers will leave Washington before passing the measure aimed at eliminating long waiting lists at VA hospitals and clinics.

As the scandal over cover-ups at VA facilities deepened, the House and Senate passed largely similar emergency bills in June to give veterans a two-year period to seek private care at VA expense if forced to endure long wait times. Hardly any lawmakers voted against the measures, and they appeared to be on a fast track to enactment.

But that was before cost estimates were available. The Congressional Budget Office has estimated a $35 billion price tag, and the two parties have disagreed over how - or even whether - to pay for these costs.

Emergency appropriations, typically used for wars or disaster relief, can be added to the deficit without any offsetting savings under congressional budget rules.

The proposal introduced by Sanders on Thursday would provide less than $25 billion in new funds for VA health care, with $3.3 billion offset by other savings in the department's budget.

Miller came back with a plan for $10 billion in emergency funds, with other budget needs to be settled in the fiscal 2015 VA spending bill later this year.

The new proposals were announced after the VA's acting secretary, Sloan Gibson, last week told senators the agency needed $17.6 billion to clear the medical appointment waiting lists, including money to hire doctors and nurses and open new clinics.

"We were so close before the $17.6 billion number got thrown in," Miller told reporters. "And then everything stopped."

The Florida Republican said he was still hopeful next week would bring some kind of resolution.

"But arriving at a compromise will be impossible if Senate Democrats refuse to even participate in Veterans' Affairs conference committee meetings and negotiations as they did today," he added.

The legislation also provides the VA secretary new powers to fire or demote employees, based on poor performance. (Reporting By David Lawder; editing by Gunna Dickson)

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