FILE - In this Oct. 9, 2103 file photo, Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C. talks with reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington. On Monday, Burr, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla. proposed repealing the nationís controversial health care law in favor of a replacement that eliminates most of the government coverage mandates it imposed and offers tax breaks to help the lower-income obtain coverage. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)
WASHINGTON – A sprawling Democratic bill expanding health, education and other benefits for veterans easily cleared an early Senate hurdle on Tuesday. But the election-year measure still faces an uncertain fate as Republicans battle to make it smaller and find ways to pay for it.
By a 99-0 vote, senators agreed to begin debating the legislation, which sponsor Sen. Bernie Sanders, chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, says would cost $21 billion over the coming decade. That opened the door to what is likely to be days of GOP efforts to pare it down and lessen its impact on budget deficits.
By the time the Senate reaches a final showdown vote, the bill could confront GOP lawmakers with an uncomfortable campaign-season test over curbing spending for the nation’s 22 million veterans and their families. Most veterans groups support the legislation, and the voting bloc they represent is a potent one that both parties usually try to avoid offending.
Some Republicans consider Sanders’ legislation an election-year ploy aimed at forcing them to take embarrassing votes. They say the measure is too expensive and would provide so many new benefits that it would clog up a system already overburdened with veterans seeking health care and other benefits.
Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina, top Republican on the Veterans panel, said it was irresponsible “to talk about dumping more people on a broken system, to talk about asking those who’ve already waited so long to wait longer because of our actions.”
Sanders, an independent from Vermont, said, “We have the moral obligation to do the very best we can for veterans.”
Republicans were demanding a chance to offer amendments — particularly a GOP substitute Burr said was less costly and would be paid for with savings culled from veterans’ programs. Burr’s proposal also included language imposing new sanctions on Iran because of its nuclear program, which President Obama has urged Democrats to resist.
The House has approved some of the benefit improvements in Sanders’ bill, but Republicans who run that chamber say they oppose parts of the Senate bill and want better ways of financing it.
Sanders’ bill would be paid for with money left unspent from the end of U.S. fighting in Iraq and the phaseout of American forces in Afghanistan. Republicans consider that phony savings since those wars were already winding down and there were no plans to spend the money on wars.
Sanders’ bill would let many uninsured veterans without service-connected injuries get coverage from the VA system.
The Democratic bill would make it easier for veterans to qualify for in-state tuition at universities. Jobless programs would be extended and states would be pressured to make it easier for veterans to get truck driver’s and other licenses.
The measure would provide fertility treatment and coverage of adoption costs for veterans whose infertility sprang from service-related injuries. It would also expand VA counseling and treatment for sexual assault victims and increase the agency’s chiropractic care, dentistry coverage and use of alternative medicine.
A two-year program would pay for fitness center memberships for overweight veterans who live more than 15 minutes from a VA fitness facility.
The bill also erased a 1 percent cut in annual inflation increases for veterans who retire early from the military. Legislation signed this month by Obama ended that cut for most early retirees, so Sanders now wants to end it for those who joined the military beginning this year.