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Bill boosting veterans' benefits stalls in Senate

By Jennifer McDermott

Publication: theday.com

Published February 27. 2014 6:15PM   Updated February 28. 2014 12:05AM
Three additional GOP votes sought

A bill designed to improve the lives of the nation’s veterans stalled in the U.S. Senate Thursday.

The fact that a veterans’ bill, which would typically garner wide support, failed to pass a procedural hurdle is “another tragic sign of the partisan gridlock” in Congress, said U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn. Blumenthal, who wrote several of the provisions, said he was “deeply disappointed” with the outcome.

“I am sad and angry for veterans in Connecticut and across America,” he said in an interview. “Speaking personally, I am committed to continue the fight and perhaps bring back this measure for another vote.”

The Comprehensive Veterans Health and Benefits and Military Retirement Pay Restoration Act of 2014 includes provisions to improve health care, reduce the backlog of disability claims, expand access to education benefits for veterans and their survivors and provide for more job opportunities.

It would also have expanded access to chiropractic care at VA medical centers nationwide, made it easier for victims of sexual trauma in the military to file VA disability claims and helped family members care for veterans because of the provision that expands eligibility for VA caregiver assistance. The full cost-of-living adjustments would have been restored for future military retirees.

U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, introduced it. According to Sanders, Republicans derailed the bill by raising a budget point of order challenging outlays for veterans. Sixty votes were required to proceed. It failed 56 to 41.

“I had hoped that at least on this issue, the need to protect and defend our veterans and their families, we could rise above the day-to-day rancor and party politics that we see here in Congress,” Sanders said in a statement. “… I am proud that we received every Democratic vote and that two Republicans also voted with us. In the coming weeks I will be working hard to secure three additional Republican votes and I think we can do that.”

Blumenthal said Republicans also insisted on extraneous amendments dealing with Iran sanctions and an unnecessary provision that would have required the cost of the bill to be offset with a cut or revenue adjustment elsewhere. Depending on which provisions were approved, the bill was estimated to cost $20 billion to $30 billion, he said, but the money that was budgeted to fight wars overseas could have been devoted to helping veterans.

“The amount of money involved is minuscule compared to the overall budget, and there are plenty of ways to pay for it,” Blumenthal said. “… It’s a big and broad bill because the needs of our veterans are big and broad, and we need to meet them.”

Many veterans’ and military service organizations strongly supported the legislation, including Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. IAVA founder and CEO Paul Rieckhoff said after the vote that Republicans are blaming Democrats, Democrats are blaming Republicans, and veterans are caught in the crossfire.

“Veterans don’t have time for this nonsense. And veterans are tired of being used as political chew toys,” Rieckhoff said in a statement. “IAVA will be storming the Hill next month to demand Congress stop the attacks and put veterans ahead of petty politics.”

Blumenthal noted that the bill did earn the support of 56 senators, who he said represent the majority of Americans who “want to keep faith with veterans.” If the bill is not revived in its entirety, Blumenthal said, the Senate may consider some of the provisions separately this session.

j.mcdermott@theday.com

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