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Sanders says his veterans bill still in play in Senate

Feb. 13, 2014 - 09:16PM   |  
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WASHINGTON — Sen. Bernie Sanders says there’s still hope the Senate will consider his comprehensive veterans bill, even after Congress passed legislation this week repealing cuts to military pensions.

“What I have been told is we’re next, bottom line,” the Vermont independent said recently.

The bill that cleared Congress this week repeals a provision in December’s budget agreement reducing increases in cost of living adjustments for working-age military veterans by 1 percent.

The House voted overwhelmingly for the repeal measure, which covers the cost of the repeal — more than $6 billion — by extending sequestration spending cuts for one year. The Senate voted 95-3 on Wednesday to approve the House bill. President Barack Obama is expected to sign it into law.

Sanders, who chairs the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, voted for the measure. A similar but more far-reaching version of the repeal measure is part of his comprehensive bill. Sen. Patrick Leahy and Rep. Peter Welch, both Vermont Democrats, also voted for the measure.

Sanders said it’s not unusual for several different versions of the same provision to be approved as part of separate bills. He said this week’s votes repealing the military pension cuts will boost prospects for the similar provision in his bill if the bill ends up before a House-Senate conference committee.

Sanders released a statement following Wednesday’s Senate vote calling the repeal bill a “step forward” but saying it doesn’t go far enough.

“The legislation restores the COLA for current retirees and members of the armed forces but keeps the cut in place for those who have recently joined the military or will join in the years to come,” his statement said. “Many veterans’ organizations have major concerns about that, and I share those concerns. A comprehensive veterans’ bill, which I hope the Senate will take up soon, would restore those cuts for all veterans, which is what we should be doing.”

Sanders’ package is designed to improve veterans’ health care and dental care, expand educational opportunities, help the Veterans Affairs Department address a disability claims backlog, and help veterans find jobs.

Republicans, led by Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina, the Veterans’ Affairs Committee’s highest-ranking Republican, are working on an alternative to Sanders’ bill because they object to the way he has proposed paying for it, according to The Hill. Its total cost of $18.29 billion over five years would be financed through savings at the VA and cuts to overseas contingency operations funds as military operations wind down in Afghanistan and Iraq, according to Sanders’ office.

“I don’t think that’s a real offset,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., told The Hill on Feb. 4. “Because we’re withdrawing from Iraq (and Afghanistan), we’re not going to spend the money, so getting credit for money you don’t spend is not an offset.”

Contributing: Susan Davis, USA Today

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