Republicans slammed Democrats on Thursday after most of them boycotted a conference committee meeting to work out differences between House and Senate bills addressing the Veterans Affairs crisis.
"The crisis at VA is not a partisan problem, and I will do everything I can to prevent this from devolving into an exercise in the sort of bickering and name-calling for which Washington has become infamous," said Rep. Jeff Miller, the Florida Republican who chairs the House Veterans' Affairs Committee.
"Arriving at a compromise will be impossible if Senate Democrats refuse to even participate in … meetings and negotiations, as they did today," he said.
House Speaker John Boehner called the Democratic no-show "shameful."
Fourteen Republicans and only one Democrat, Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick of Arizona, attended the session.
"Unfortunately, Senate Democrats refused to even show up and discuss bipartisan solutions, preferring instead to talk behind closed doors," the Ohio Republican said. "If President Obama cares about America’s veterans, he needs to pick up his phone out in California and tell Senate Democrats to get to work."
The stalemate threatens to keep Congress from passing legislation before its five-week summer recess begins on Aug. 1.
It came to a head as Miller and Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Vermont independent who chairs the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee, offered competing proposals Thursday to fix the beleaguered VA system. The agency has been scandalized by long wait times for patients and falsified records covering up the delays.
Since the scandal became public in April, both the House and the Senate have passed legislation that would allow veterans who have been waiting more than 90 days to seek care at private institutions.
In an internal audit
last month, the VA said that 57,436 new veterans had been waiting 90 days or more for an appointment.
The House bill costs $44 billion, compared with $35 billion for the Senate legislation. Negotiations between members of both parties stalled after their only public meeting, which was on June 24. They have since been talking privately.
The major stumbling block is over whether the embattled agency should get the $17.6 billion that Acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson said was needed
over the next three years to eliminate the appointment backlog.
The money also would go to paying for private healthcare for veterans and for hiring about 10,000 additional clinical staff, including about 1,500 physicians.
Miller last week attacked Sloan's emergency plea, saying that it was "an act of budgetary malpractice to blindly sign off on this request." Any future aid should be allocated to the VA through the regular appropriations process, the chairman said.
The action on Thursday kicked off when Sanders, who caucuses with the Democrats, announced a $25 billion, three-year proposal. It would allow the VA to lease new clinics, hire thousands of doctors and nurses — and would make it easier for veterans unable to get quick appointments to obtain outside care.
Miller later countered with a plan for only $10 billion in immediate emergency spending, promising future aid via the regular budget process.
His bill would also keep most of the provisions in the Senate-passed bill and would authorize about $100 million for the Department of Veterans Affairs to address shortfalls in its current budget year.
Miller announced his proposal at the conferees' session. Sanders skipped the noon meeting, as did all Democrats on the negotiating committee except Kirkpatrick, where news reports of abuses at VA centers first surfaced.
Sanders attacked Miller's proposal as a "take-it-or-leave-it gambit."
"This is a sad indication that the House leadership is not serious about negotiations," he said in a statement
. "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."
Miller called his proposal "a good-faith offer" — pledging that he was "prepared to keep negotiating for as long as it takes to reach a deal, and I hope Senate Democrats will work with me to address VA’s delays in care and accountability crises.
"In the meantime, America’s veterans and American taxpayers will be waiting."
Kirkpatrick told Newsmax in a statement that she attended the conference because "it's my job to show up and to be a voice for our veterans."
"They, and the American people, expect us to get something done. We cannot afford the usual partisan bickering in Washington.
"In Arizona, we’ve seen the terrible toll on our veterans who are stuck waiting for care," she added. "We’ve seen whistleblowers punished and executives unduly rewarded. This is an emergency, and this committee needs to act swiftly."
Even Kirkpatrick's Arizona colleague, GOP Sen. John McCain, cautioned House and Senate negotiators to "cool down some," The Hill reports
"I would hope that we could, maybe all of us, cool down some," McCain said on the Senate floor.
The VA operates the largest U.S. healthcare system, providing healthcare to nearly 9 million U.S. veterans at some 1,700 facilities, including 150 hospitals and 820 outpatient clinics.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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