House and Senate negotiators hope for a quick deal to fix the Department of Veterans Affairs although they have yet to resolve whether to offset a potentially enormous pricetag or add to the deficit.
More than two dozen members of the House and Senate met in a rare conference committee Tuesday to begin resolving each chambers' proposals to address the VA health care scandal.
It was the first time in 15 years that members met in a joint committee regarding VA legislation, which Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said "shows how severe the problems facing the VA are and how serious members are about fixing them." With the July Fourth recess next week and a looming August recess, lawmakers are racing to address the issue.
"We are all hopeful that we can at least get the parameters put together before we leave [for July Fourth]," House Veterans' Affairs Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla., told reporters after the meeting. But he would not commit to a timeline for a conference report.
Both House and Senate bills make it easier to fire top VA officials and give veterans the option of getting private care paid for the by the government if they cannot get timely service directly from the VA.
"One of the biggest differences that you hear is the Senate wants to consider this emergency funding and appropriate such dollars as may be necessary. And that’s not the House position," said Miller. "The House position is that VA needs to justify that and come forward and make those requests."
Some lawmakers disputed the Congressional Budget Office's initial assessment of the costs of the legislation, arguing that the CBO did not consider potential savings. The CBO estimated the proposals could cost roughly $50 billion per year .
Senate Veterans' Affairs Ranking Member Richard M. Burr, R-N.C., called the numbers "grotesquely" out of line.
Miller told reporters that the CBO needs to issue a new estimate, but added that the conference will keep working to settle their differences while they wait for updated numbers.
Despite differences of opinion over funding and the overall quality of care at the VA, lawmakers were hopeful they can come to a resolution.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who developed the Senate bill along with Senate Veterans Affairs Chairman Bernard Sanders, I-Vt., told CQ Roll Call before the meeting, “I don’t think it’s going to be easy, but we can get something done."