The Politics of Process Stalls Veterans Benefits Bill

J. Scott Applewhite/AP

AA Font size + Print

A rift between Senate Democrats and Republicans over who gets to offer amendments and how many is threatening a key veterans bill. By Michael Catalini and Stacy Kaper

Legislation to help veterans often wins bipartisan support, but a rift between Senate Democrats and Republicans over process—who gets to offer amendments and how many—is threatening an omnibus bill moving through the chamber.

Senate Republicans are emerging as skeptics of a Democratic bill sponsored by Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders of Vermont, arguing that an increasingly familiar script that has killed other bills may well repeat itself here.

Republican lawmakers describe a pattern in which Majority Leader Harry Reid brings Democratic legislation to the floor and blocks the minority from offering amendments, and in response they block the measure from advancing to a simple-majority vote. The process has thus far stalled an extension of unemployment insurance.

“It’s pretty simple,” said Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa. “We don’t understand why the Senate shouldn’t function as it historically has functioned. The right of a single senator to offer amendments is pretty important. It’s a matter of principle as much as it is about any of the specific pieces of legislation.”

The Senate voted Tuesday to proceed to the Sanders bill, which would reverse an unpopular cut to veterans’ pensions that was enacted as part of the budget deal, as well as expand veterans’ education and health care benefits.

Republicans are wary of Sanders’s plan to expand benefits, and they’re furious over what they say is strong-arming by Reid.

“If Senator Reid were willing to run a legislative process, I think you can move bills,” said Republican Sen. Mike Johanns of Nebraska, who sits on the Veterans’ Affairs Committee. “It’s like this unemployment [legislation]. I always thought the votes were there. I just never could understand why he didn’t let the process go forward.”

Republicans blame election-year politics.

Grassley said Reid may be limiting amendments to protect vulnerable Democrats.

“This I can’t answer, it’s just a supposition, but to what extent does Senator Reid not want the senate to function because he wants to protect his majority?” Grassley said.

For his part, Reid has said that he will green-light GOP amendments that are related to the veterans bill, but at the same time made it clear that he will draw a line beyond which Republicans cannot cross. Exactly where that line is set remains to be seen.

“This doesn’t mean that we’ll go on forever,” Reid said.

Though 99 senators got on board for Tuesday’s vote to move the measure a small step forward, it’s unclear whether that support will continue on future, more substantive votes to pass the bill.

One of the Republican amendments is a plan to replace the measure with an alternative from Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina, the Veterans’ Affairs panel’s top Republican.

The GOP plan would change how to pay for the expanded spending, which under the Sanders bill relies on savings from the drawdown of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Republicans say those savings are “false,” arguing they don’t actually save taxpayers money. Instead, Republicans want to pay for it by targeting a child tax credit used by undocumented immigrants.

If Republicans don’t get to vote on their amendments, and if its spending offset isn’t changed, they’re threatening to block the measure—even if that position leaves them at odds with most veterans groups.

“It would be very difficult for people to vote against a veterans bill,” said Republican Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma. “But if they do it with the [war-drawdown funding] offset there might be some of us who vote against it, and I might be one of them.”

Sen. John McCain took offense at the fact that Republicans were being blocked from amending such a massive bill for such a vital group. “I think I know as much about veterans as Mr. Sanders, with all due respect, yet I’m not allowed a single amendment to Mr. Sanders’s bill; that to me is an outrage and an insult,” he said.

Another Republican amendment would call for Iran sanctions, a sensitive area dividing some Democrats and the White House, which wants to see its diplomatic approach proceed.

Burr said that he could not abide a Democratic request that only amendments pertaining to veterans issues be offered.

“The chair made a plea that this be limited to VA issues,” Burr said. “That might be possible if the minority had the opportunity to amend legislation in this institution. It’s the only way we can get this to the floor because we’re denied any other attempt to do it.”

Close [ x ] More from DefenseOne
 
 

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from DefenseOne.com.
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Software-Defined Networking

    So many demands are being placed on federal information technology networks, which must handle vast amounts of data, accommodate voice and video, and cope with a multitude of highly connected devices while keeping government information secure from cyber threats. This issue brief discusses the state of SDN in the federal government and the path forward.

    Download
  • Military Readiness: Ensuring Readiness with Analytic Insight

    To determine military readiness, decision makers in defense organizations must develop an understanding of complex inter-relationships among readiness variables. For example, how will an anticipated change in a readiness input really impact readiness at the unit level and, equally important, how will it impact readiness outside of the unit? Learn how to form a more sophisticated and accurate understanding of readiness and make decisions in a timely and cost-effective manner.

    Download
  • Cyber Risk Report: Cybercrime Trends from 2016

    In our first half 2016 cyber trends report, SurfWatch Labs threat intelligence analysts noted one key theme – the interconnected nature of cybercrime – and the second half of the year saw organizations continuing to struggle with that reality. The number of potential cyber threats, the pool of already compromised information, and the ease of finding increasingly sophisticated cybercriminal tools continued to snowball throughout the year.

    Download
  • A New Security Architecture for Federal Networks

    Federal government networks are under constant attack, and the number of those attacks is increasing. This issue brief discusses today's threats and a new model for the future.

    Download
  • Information Operations: Retaking the High Ground

    Today's threats are fluent in rapidly evolving areas of the Internet, especially social media. Learn how military organizations can secure an advantage in this developing arena.

    Download

When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.