Updated 5:04 p.m. | The House voted overwhelmingly to pass the compromise health care overhaul aimed at slashing wait times at Veterans Affairs facilities. The bill is expected to easily pass the Senate and head to President Barack Obama's desk before Congress leaves for the August recess.
The bill — crafted by House Veterans' Affairs Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla., and Senate Veterans' Affairs Chairman Bernard Sanders, I-Vt. — proved so popular that leaders brought it to the floor under suspension of the rules, an expedited floor procedure requiring a two-thirds majority for passage. It passed 420-5, despite the conservative group Heritage Action for America announcing it would key vote against its package on its annual scorecard.
Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, cheered the rare bipartisan achievement:
“Allowing the lives of our nation’s veterans to slip through the cracks of a broken bureaucracy is not just unacceptable, it’s immoral," he said in a statement. "Making sure veterans have timely access to care is one of the first things we must do to address the crisis at the VA. We also need real accountability, and making it easier to fire or demote the senior managers who are not doing their jobs is a positive step forward. But, this agreement is just the beginning. Much more work needs to be done to fix the widespread problems at the VA, and it’s going to require the president to outline a long-term plan."The easy passage marked a major turnaround from late last week, when talks stalled.
Miller told reporters then that Sanders, who boycotted a conference meeting, would rather hold press conferences than work through differences in a transparent manner, adding that Sanders was the one "calling people names" and "lobbing grenades," not he.
But over the weekend, tempers cooled and conversations resumed. By Monday afternoon, when the conference committee reconvened — with full participation, this time — an agreement was ready to take the spotlight.
The compromise bill passed by the House Wednesday would provide about $17 billion to the VA. The Congressional Budget Office said that because of offsets, the bill would only add about $10 billion to the deficit over a decade.
One of the biggest expansions of government since the GOP takeover of the House, the bill would direct $10 billion towards launching a program to allow veterans to seek medical care if they have unreasonable wait times or if they live more than 40 miles from a facility. It also would include $5 billion for additional doctors and nurses and other upgrades and authorize the VA to sign leases for 27 new major health care facilities.
Niels Lesniewski and Humberto Sanchez contributed to this report. Related: Bernie Sanders' New Title: Dealmaker