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What Happens in the Senate When No One's Looking? A Lot

While all eyes were on the House, the Senate actually got some work done. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

While everyone was focused on events in the House, the Senate had a sudden burst of productivity this week.  

On Wednesday the chamber swiftly approved a Veterans Administration bill and quietly cleared an intelligence authorization by voice vote without any fanfare.  

The Senate action came as the spotlight was on the House where the fallout of Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s Republican primary loss the night before was rippling through the chamber.  

Action on the VA bill — passed so fast the CBO hasn't finished analyzing it — had been spurred by the long wait times for medical attention across the country at VA facilities. Sen. Bernard Sanders, I-Vt., and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., quickly negotiated the measure, which would allow veterans to seek medical attention from private providers rather than suffer unreasonably long wait times. The bill also provided funds for hiring new doctors and authorized the leasing on new facilities. The measure will be reconciled with a House-passed bill.  

McCain said the rapid response was spurred by the emergency situation that exists at the agency.  

“It shows I think the impact of this terrible situation at the VA,” McCain said.  

But it also showed that veterans’ issues could still have a unifying effect despite the currently hyper-partisan atmosphere in Congress.  

The bill passed 93-3 with Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn.; Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis.; and Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., opposing the bill over its potential costs, which the CBO estimated could cost a stunning $50 billion a year.  

Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., who will likely be named as a member of the conference committee, pledged to find offsets for the bill.  

However, Coburn didn’t think the bipartisanship on the veterans issue would lead to further passage of legislation.  

“If we had the same … intensity about our budget, our deficits and our debt, we'd do something on them too,” Coburn said. “But the fact is that this is so out-of-the-park” bad at the VA.  

Conservative firebrand Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, also warned not to read too much into the bipartisanship and blamed Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., for the poor prospects of further legislative activity.  

“Unfortunately not,” said Cruz when asked if the prospects have improved for other bills. “Harry Reid has made clear his intention to do nothing of consequence in the Senate this year.”  

The Senate will this week continue to test its tolerance for bipartisanship in an election year by taking up a package of three appropriations bills including the Commerce-Justice-Science, Transportation-HUD and Agriculture bills.  

The issue of amendments will be the most difficult hurdle. Reid has been reluctant to allow many amendments to be offered charging that Republicans are only interested in scoring political points rather than legislating.  

Republicans argue that Reid also uses the Senate to make political points, including with a student loan bill, which Republicans blocked, in part, over the fact that the proposal was offset by a new minimum tax on millionaires. Republicans also argue that Reid’s lockdown on amendments limits their ability to represent their constituents, which gives the GOP no incentive to help move legislation through the chamber.  

The standoff has killed many bills this Congress, even bipartisan legislation, including an energy efficiency package and a spate of about 50 expired tax breaks.  

But Appropriations Committee Chairman Barbara A. Mikulski, D-Md., said she hopes an agreement can be worked out where relevant amendments can be offered.  

“There will be amendments on the floor,” Mikulski said, adding that Reid is sorting out the process with Republicans.  

“First of all, what we want is amendments germane to the bill, so the bills that we’re moving next week are not foreign policy bills, they’re bread-and-butter bills,” Mikulski said. “Amendments will be allowed. We want relevant amendments to the bill.”  

Coburn, a fiscal hawk who has thwarted the appropriations process in the past, said Mikulski has reached out to him to try to smooth the process.  

“I’ve taken a little bit of a different approach,” Coburn said. “I have worked with Barbara; I am going to try to help her pass bills.  

However, Coburn said he has issues with the C-J-S bill, which uses “changes in mandatory spending programs” also known as “chimps,” which he claims are used to falsely claim savings.  

“But on the bills that have chimps in them, I am going to oppose them,” Coburn.  

He pointed to the chimp used in connection with the Crime Victims Fund in the measure. The fund is supposed to collect fines and penalties imposed on criminals to help pay for the needs of crime victims such as lost wages, funerals, and health care costs.  

The fund typically has a higher balance that is spent in the year for victim aid and counts the rest as savings.  

“I think it’s morally reprehensible that you would steal money year after year that is not there, its nonexistent, and say because we didn’t give victims of crime their money, and we are not going to spend it, therefore it’s a savings,” Coburn said.  

Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., who is also chairman of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, said he was cautiously optimistic that the package could get through the chamber.  

“It’s been so long since we tried to get up on this bicycle, I don’t know if we can keep it moving; I think we can,” Durbin said.  

Niels Lesniewski and Tamar Hallerman contributed to this report.