The 93-3 vote in the Democratic-led Senate followed unanimous
passage on Tuesday in the Republican-controlled House of
Representatives of a similar bill to address a crisis that has
embarrassed the Obama administration and prompted Veterans Affairs
Secretary Eric Shinseki to quit.
Lawmakers must now iron out differences between the House and Senate
versions before voting on a final package that could be signed into
law by President Barack Obama.
The Senate measure matches several provisions passed by the House to
address a crisis unfolding in the run-up to November's congressional
The senators who authored the bill emphasized the need for urgency.
It was crafted by Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Bernie
Sanders, an independent from Vermont, and Republican John McCain of
Arizona, a state where 40 veterans are said to have died while
waiting months for appointments at VA clinics in Phoenix.
"If there is a definition of emergency, I would say that this
legislation fits," McCain said. "We've got to get a good bill on the
president's desk next week," Sanders said.
Before passing the bill, senators voted 75-19 to turn aside
objections to its cost raised by Republican Jeff Sessions of
Alabama. "I feel strongly we've got to do the right thing for our
veterans. But I don't think we should create a blank check, an
unlimited entitlement program, now," Sessions said.
Sessions and two other Republicans, Ron Johnson of Wisconsin and Bob
Corker of Tennessee, voted against the bill's passage.
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Provisions passed by both chambers would allow veterans to visit
private doctors at VA expense if they are forced to endure long
waits for appointments at VA clinics or live more than 40 miles (64
km) away, and would give the VA secretary more power to fire or
demote employees for poor performance.
The Senate measure also matches earlier House-passed legislation
that authorizes the VA to sign leases for 26 new clinics in 18
The bill would require an emergency supplemental appropriation,
which Sanders estimated at under $2 billion, mainly for the opening
of the 26 clinics.
Among differences between the House and Senate versions are that the
House proposes a top-to-bottom review of all aspects of VA's health
care system, while the Senate calls for a review of appointment
scheduling practices and systems. The Senate version offers
protections for VA employees not in the House bill.
The VA operates the largest U.S. healthcare system, with 151
hospitals and 827 outpatient clinics serving 8.9 million veterans.
The FBI said on Wednesday it has opened a criminal investigation of
an Arizona VA office.
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