The word compromise is seldom linked positively with the word Congress these days .
But after several weeks of intense debate, congressional negotiators have reached a compromise on a bill that would make significant and long-overdue reforms to the Department of Veterans Affairs, which has been cloaked in scandal since reports surfaced this spring about patients dying while waiting to see doctors.
Combining elements of separate legislation passed in both houses, the $17 billion package would make it easier to fire VA executives who are under-performing or involved in misconduct, authorize the hiring of more doctors, nurses and medical staff and fund the lease of 27 new clinics across the country.
Under the proposal, finalized only days before legislators adjourn for a five-week recess, eligible veterans who cannot get prompt appointments or who live more than 40 miles from a VA facility would be reimbursed for healthcare obtained outside the system.
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The deal is a step forward for members of the veteran community — 1.7 million of whom live in Texas — and a welcome moment of bipartisanship in Washington.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Congressman Jeff Miller, R-Fla. — chairmen of the Veterans Affairs Committees in their respective houses — say they are confident that Congress will send the bill to the president’s desk by the end of the week.
The issue that could tank the deal is the price tag.
Original estimates from the Congressional Budget Office had the bill topping $50 billion a year, but Sanders and Miller successfully whittled down the total to $17 billion — $5 billion from unspecified cuts to the existing VA budget and $12 billion of new spending.
Some Democrats were prepared to spend more, while some Republicans expressed concerns that throwing additional money at the VA will do little to change its corrosive culture. But the final bill has been well-received by both parties, who seem to agree that Congress must take action on the VA before the August recess.
At a time when Congress seems unable to agree on even non-controversial policies, the VA compromise bill keeps hope alive that bipartisan accord in Washington is possible — at least when the stakes are high and time is short.