House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla., called a bipartisan meeting for lawmakers negotiating a way to combine the House- and Senate-passed bills dealing with long wait times and other institutional problems recently brought to light at Veterans Affairs hospitals across the country.
All but one of the invited Democrats boycotted the meeting in protest.
Miller has been negotiating with his Senate counterpart, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., for weeks to try to meld their parallel reform bills. But apparently negotiations hit a snag Thursday morning, leading Miller to abruptly announced a public conference between the House and Senate Veterans Committee members- without consulting Sanders.
Sanders went off on Miller on the Senate floor.
"Mr. Miller in the House, announced unilaterally, without my knowledge or without my concurrence, that he was going to hold a so-called conference committee meeting in order to introduce his proposals...In other words, his idea of negotiation is, we have a proposal. Take it or leave it," Sanders said. "Any sixth grader in a school of the United States understands this is not negotiation. This is not what democracy is about."
Sanders, an independent who caucuses with Senate Democrats, refused to show up at the conference, as did every other Democrat aside from Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, D-Ariz. The Senate and House Republicans in attendance mostly discussed the need to pass VA legislation quickly and expressed disappointment that the Democrats were not there.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., rushed to the Senate floor after Sanders to plead with him to attend the conference. Saying he could "fully understand" Sanders' frustration, McCain asked everyone to "cool down some."
"I hope all my colleagues recognize that for us to not come to agreement on legislation which is not that dissimilar...is really a gross disservice to those who deserve our consideration most," he said.
The negotiating impasse has to do with the price and scope of the VA bill.
Republicans want the legislation to grant veterans the ability to see private doctors if the nearest VA facility is far away or if wait times are too long. Democrats share that goal, but they also think the legislation should grant the VA additional funding to hire more doctors, nurses, and medical staff to try to fix the wait time problem.
Republicans think that kind of additional funding is better handled through the normal appropriations process.
At a hearing last week, the acting VA secretary said the agency will need $17.6 billion dollars over the next three years to meet new patient demand.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, blamed the breakdown in negotiations on White House demands for more money "with no accountability."
"Some in Washington may view every crisis as an opportunity to demand more taxpayer dollars but the American people don't see it that way. They want solutions," he told reporters at a weekly press briefing.
After Thursday's conference meeting, which lasted about half an hour, Miller defended his decision to spring the conference on Sanders.
"I thought four weeks was long enough for us to negotiate behind closed doors," he said.
Asked whose court the ball is in now, Miller said "I don't know where the ball is. I wish I did."
But at a press conference after the meeting, Sanders told reporters that despite efforts meet Republicans halfway, "I can only conclude that the good faith we have shown is imply not being reciprocated by the other side."
Despite all this, the two sides still say they are optimistic that they can strike a deal that gives veterans more flexibility when seeking health care.
But it might take a while.
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