With the August break around the corner, Congress remains locked in a battle over how much to spend reshaping the tattered Veterans Affairs Department.
Even though the House and Senate overwhelmingly approved separate bills in June to speed up veterans' access to care, they have been unable to bridge differences over the price tag.
Originally the House bill called for $44 billion to be spent on an overhaul and the Senate version budgeted $35 billion, according to estimates by the Congressional Budget Office. Under the latest proposals, House Republicans are offering $10 billion in emergency funding, and Senate Democrats want $25 billion.
With tempers flaring and talks stalled, it remained unclear whether the legislation would pass in the few working days left before the break.
Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.), the top negotiator on the House side, called a meeting Thursday of the joint conference committee to resolve the differences, but Democrats called the session a sham. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), the Senate's chief arbiter, refused to attend and criticized Republicans for what he said was their "take it or leave it" attitude.
"We have put good-faith offers on the table time and time again, and we have tried to meet our Republican colleagues more than halfway," Sanders said on the Senate floor. "Our veterans deserve a responsible solution."
Miller said Republicans were open to talks. "I don't know where the ball is right now. I wish I did," Miller said. Sanders has "put something out. We've put something out. We'll get back together Monday if he wants to do so to vote."
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has said it would be "obscene" if Congress left for break without reaching a decision. "I beg my colleagues to sit down and let's work this out," McCain said. "Veterans are dying. This is not a policy, academic issue here. This is the very lives of the men and women who are serving."
Under the House and Senate proposals, veterans would be able to go to private, non-VA physicians if they were in need of immediate medical care. The emergency funds also allow the VA to hire additional doctors and nurses within the system.
The initial bipartisan support for a VA overhaul bill followed reports this spring that veterans were having to wait months or years for care, and that VA workers were covering up the delays at several facilities.
Acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson said this month that the agency needed $17.6 billion in emergency funding over the next three years to hire 10,000 clinical staff members, including 1,500 doctors, and to upgrade medical facilities and computer systems. That money would be largely on top of what Congress has offered in its proposals.
Veterans service groups have urged both sides to come back to the table. Sixteen organizations sent a letter to leaders of both chambers this week, saying, "Congress has a sacred obligation to provide VA with the funds it requires."
Compromise "is certainly slowed down and that is frustrating," said Ian de Planque, deputy legislative director for the American Legion.
Lisa Mascaro in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times