WASHINGTON (AP) - With Congress scheduled to recess in a week, the chairmen of the House and Senate Veterans Affairs committees offered competing new proposals Thursday to fix a veterans health care program scandalized by long waits and falsified records covering up the delays.
Both proposals would scale back separate House and Senate-passed bills after lawmakers in both parties expressed shock at price tags totaling more than $35 billion. Both new proposals would still allow veterans to go to private doctors if they face long waits for appointments at VA hospitals and clinics.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., chairman of the Senate panel, went public first on Thursday, announcing a proposal that would cost about $25 billion over three years. That is $10 billion less than a bill passed by the Senate last month and nearly $20 billion less than a House-backed measure.
Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House veterans panel, countered hours later with a proposal that would require only $10 billion in emergency spending, with a promise of more spending in future years under the normal congressional budget process.
Miller announced his plan at a hastily scheduled meeting of House and Senate negotiators who have been working on the veterans bill for more than a month. Sanders skipped the meeting, as did all Democrats on the negotiating committee except one, Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, D-Ariz.
House Speaker John Boehner called Democrats' nonappearance at the meeting "shameful" and said that if President Barack Obama cares about America's veterans, "he needs to pick up his phone out in California and tell Senate Democrats to get to work."
Despite the partisan divide, Miller said talks on the veterans had not collapsed and that he remains optimistic a deal can be reached before Congress adjourns next week until September.
Sanders called Miller's proposal a "take-it-or-leave-it gambit." Miller said his proposal was merely "a public offer" that allows everyone to see what negotiators have been discussing in private for weeks. Talks on the bill will continue, Miller said.
"We don't need more speeches and posturing. We need serious negotiations - 24/7 if necessary - to resolve our differences in order to pass critical legislation," Sanders said.
The Obama administration says it needs about $17.6 billion to hire thousands of doctors, nurses and other health professionals, lease new facilities and upgrade its computers to reduce a backlog of veterans awaiting care at VA hospitals and clinics. The administration's request for turning more VA health care over to private doctors, however, was the biggest cost in Congress's bills.
Republicans complained that Acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson's budget request is thinly documented. Miller told Gibson Thursday that he was surprised that such a large request was made in a slim, three-page memo.
The request "makes it very difficult for us to do our job" Miller told Gibson at a hearing Thursday of the House veterans' panel.
Gibson said the request reflected his judgment about what the department needs.