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Congress has little time to finalize VA, defense bills

Jul. 7, 2014 - 02:33PM   |  
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The dome of the U.S. Capitol is seen in Washington, D.C. (Alex Wong / Getty Images)
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Congress returns from its July Fourth vacation to a long list of high-profile, unfinished defense business and a short legislative calendar before the November elections.

The new Veterans Affairs Department reform bill, the annual defense appropriation bill, the annual defense authorization bill, and funding for military construction and VA operations for fiscal 2015 are all on lawmakers’ immediate to-do list — in between more briefings on the situation in Iraq and other overseas threats.

But Congress is scheduled to be in session only 28 days before breaking in August, and likely will return for only a week or two in the September/October time frame before the November midterm elections. That 28-day total also includes 10 Mondays and Fridays, days which at best feature a light schedule of work under normal circumstances.

Here’s a look at what might and might not get completed before the late-fall lame-duck session:

VA reforms

Spurred by the ongoing controversies in the department, VA reform legislation has the best chance of any defense or veterans measure to pass quickly in July.

The legislation would expand private­care options for veterans who face lengthy waits to see VA doctors or live in rural areas, and make it easier to fire underperforming VA executives.

Leaders in the House and Senate have expressed support for the idea, and members of a conference committee met before the July Fourth break to begin finalizing the bill.

Cost appears to be the only major stumbling block left. A Congressional Budget Office estimate in early June said the expanded care could require up to $50 billion a year in new spending, but Senate supporters have called that a ridiculous overestimate.

Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House Veteran’s Affairs Committee, has said that representatives on the conference committee will push for spending offsets to prevent the bill from adding to the federal budget deficit. To do that, he said new, more accurate spending estimates are needed, which could slow the process.

But Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee chairman, has promised that delay won’t drag on for weeks. He originally predicted the measure would be finished before July 1, and is now vowing to get it to President Obama’s desk in early July.

Defense authorization bill

The House has already approved its version of the annual defense policy bill, and members of the Senate Armed Services Committee are hopeful they can bring their draft to the Senate floor in the next few weeks.

Whether that means they can reconcile differences in the two measures before the end of the fiscal year is another issue.

Both versions reject Pentagon plans to overhaul Tricare fees, trim the commissary benefit and reduce housing allowances. The House draft offers moral support — but no hard mandate — for a 1.8 percent basic pay raise next year, while the Senate agrees with the 1 percent pay increase preferred by the White House. Both measures would preserve the Air Force’s A-10 fleet, but differ in how they would pay for it.

Before the chambers can talk about negotiating differences, the full Senate must pass its version. Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., the Senate majority leader, still has not scheduled floor debate on the measure, although the Senate Armed Services Committee has been pushing for it since late May.

Committee chairmen Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., and his House counterpart, Rep. Buck McKeon, R-Calif., have expressed optimism about finishing the legislation before Oct. 1, a rare occurrence even outside an election year. The short time frame remaining will make that nearly impossible.

Appropriations bills

Still, the defense authorization bill has a better chance of being completed than the accompanying defense appropriations bill.

The House already has approved a $570 billion defense spending plan, but the Senate Appropriations Committee won’t mark up its version until July 17. That will leave just a few legislative days to get the measure to the Senate floor, an unlikely rush for a budget bill.

In addition, the White House on June 26 sent its first draft of the proposed overseas contingency budget for fiscal 2015, totaling nearly $66 billion. Lawmakers have just begun digging into that request, which includes $1.5 billion in aid to Iraq and its neighbors “to promote internal stability” in the region.

Meanwhile, the VA appropriations bills are in the same legislative limbo. The House approved a $158 billion spending plan for the department in April, but a similar budget proposal is stalled in the Senate.

Despite early work on the measures, most Hill staffers assume that finalizing the appropriations bills will be part of the lame-duck session, with an eye toward the new lawmakers coming into office in 2015.

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