WASHINGTON -- Seeking to overcome Congress' usual partisan wrangling, lawmakers from opposing parties huddled Wednesday to try to reach a compromise on a legislative response to the VA health care scandal.
Senate Veterans Affairs Committee chairman Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., met with Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and House Veterans Affairs Committee chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla., to discuss competing proposals to reduce veterans' wait times for health care and expand the VA secretary's authority to fire employees. Also involved were Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and North Carolina Sen. Richard Burr, the VA panel's senior Republican.
There is bipartisan support in Congress for allowing veterans facing long waits for care at VA facilities to see private doctors. But Mr. Sanders advocates allowing the VA to hire more doctors and open more facilities to treat veterans, while many Republicans contend that the VA, whose budget has been increased in recent years, has enough money.
Lawmakers are hoping to reach a deal quickly enough to bring a VA reform bill before the Senate as early as today. Senators hope to pass the bill before Friday's 70th anniversary of the Allied invasion of Europe in World War II. As many as a dozen senators are expected to attend the ceremonies in France.
Mr. Sanders acknowledged that he and Mr. McCain make an unlikely pair, but he was upbeat about the prospects of quickly reaching a deal. "I'm cautiously optimistic," he said in an interview. "McCain is serious, I'm serious, and Reid is serious." Mr. McCain was less optimistic about a bill being passed this week, saying, "I am not predicting anything."
The main stumbling block appeared to be over when and under what circumstances veterans could turn to doctors and other providers outside the 1,700-facility VA system for what is largely free care for them.
The effort to strike a bipartisan deal came as House Republican leaders wrote President Barack Obama, calling the VA scandal a "national disgrace" and urging him to lay out "your vision for reforming what is clearly a broken system."
House Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, and other GOP leaders complained about the VA's failure to fully comply with the oversight committee's request for information. They also urged the president to support Republican-sponsored legislation that would give any veteran facing a 30-day wait at a VA facility the option to seek private care at VA expense, and to persuade the Senate to pass the House-approved VA Management Accountability Act that would expand the VA secretary's authority to fire or demote senior staff for poor performance.
Republican governors of six states, including Pennsylvania's Tom Corbett, asked President Barack Obama to give states authority to conduct reviews of all veterans health facilities within their borders. The governors said the state investigations would offer an independent review by officials "who have not been part of the current systemic crisis."
In the meantime, acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson held his first meeting with veterans' groups Wednesday, announcing that the VA has contacted 1,586 veterans kept off an official waiting list at the Phoenix VA to schedule their appointments. He plans to travel to Phoenix today.
Associated Press contributed.