WASHINGTON, June 4 Under pressure to solve a crisis involving delayed medical care for veterans, U.S. lawmakers began talks on Wednesday on bipartisan legislation to address problems at the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Independent Senator Bernie Sanders, who chairs the chamber's Veterans Affairs Committee, and Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona met to try to work out differences.
"We need to try to come to a compromise on this, because the veterans deserve better than us being gridlocked," McCain told reporters after the meeting. McCain was a Vietnam-era prisoner of war and has long been an advocate for U.S. veterans.
Aides to Senate Democrats, who have the majority in the chamber, said floor action on legislation to reform the agency was possible as soon as Thursday.
Sanders said that later on Wednesday he would meet the Republican chairman of the House Veterans Affairs committee, Representative Jeff Miller, to discuss proposals.
Last week Eric Shinseki resigned as secretary of Veterans Affairs after revelations that many agency officials were covering up delays in medical treatments for veterans to improve the appearance of their job performance.
The agency, which is dealing with aging Vietnam War veterans and 2 million veterans of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, has had difficulties for years in providing timely medical care. Its inspector general said last month that delayed care was "systemic" throughout the agency.
Veterans' groups have expressed concern that legislative proposals to change the agency could be trapped in political gridlock, especially in a midterm election year. However, neither party wants to be perceived as ignoring problems at the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Reforms gained momentum on Tuesday when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said he was negotiating with the chamber's Republican leadership to try to hold votes this week on legislation to address the crisis in veterans' care.
The House of Representatives already has passed a bill by Miller giving the agency authority to immediately fire executives based on performance. Last month Sanders blocked a similar proposal in the Senate by Republican Marco Rubio.
Sanders this week proposed legislation that would give the agency more power to fire executives while allowing them to appeal, which he said was necessary to avoid politicizing the agency. His bill would also enable the agency to take other actions, including hiring more doctors, to reduce waiting time for veterans' appointments.
McCain and other Republicans on Tuesday introduced legislation to give veterans a "choice card" to seek private care if necessary.
McCain said on Wednesday after meeting Sanders that having a choice of doctors was still the "fundamental difference" between them.
Sanders said, "I think Senator McCain wants to see us make certain that veterans throughout this country do not have to wait in endless lines to get the healthcare they need. I absolutely agree. My legislation does it a little differently than his legislation does, but they both have the same goal." (Reporting by Susan Cornwell; Editing by Tom Brown)