On Veterans Affairs Fix, a Rare United Front for House and Senate

Both chambers are voting on different bills this week, but members believe they can reach an agreement for a fast, bipartisan victory.

Senate Majority Leader Senator Harry Reid (D-NV) listens during an event on Capitol Hill April 3, 2014 in Washington, DC.  (National Journal)

More than a month after the scandal at the Veterans Affairs Department broke, the House and Senate seem to be moving in different directions to solve it, each bringing up its own pieces of legislation this week.

But those differences are small and will be resolved without much delay, both sides say, hinting at the potential for a quick, bipartisan solution to a major national problem — something rarely seen in recent Congresses.

The House on Tuesday passed its third bill aimed at fixing problems at the VA in as many weeks. The most recent measure, and most comprehensive bill so far, was sponsored by House Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller of Florida and passed 426-0, albeit after a minor voting mishap.

Meanwhile, the Senate is focused on bringing up its own legislation, proposed by Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders, that represents a compromise with Sen. John McCain and other Republican members. That vote, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said Tuesday, will likely come on Wednesday or Thursday.

In an unusual move, Reid has said that he is open to looking at amendments — even from Republicans — that are germane to the legislation. That might not sound like much of a concession, but given that Reid has blocked Republican amendments more than twice as often as every previous majority leader combined, it certainly represents a significant shift.

The change in tone from the Senate Majority Leader's office is due to the significance of the issue. Whereas with other legislation, members of the minority have tried to attach amendments that would effectively kill the underlying bill, no one is talking about doing that with the VA fix, at least at the moment. And it wouldn't be politically wise to do anything that would stand in the way of a solution. The Senate, like the House, is expected to pass its VA bill with ease this week.

Not all is completely reconciled between the chambers, however. Leaders, including Sanders and Miller, also said Tuesday that they had not read the other chamber's legislation. Spokesmen for Reid and House Speaker John Boehner declined to say whether they would bring the other chamber's bill to the floor or comment on it until the other chamber passes it.

And there are differences between the bills. The House legislation would allow veterans to visit a non-VA facility if they are on a wait-list for more than 30 days, while the Senate bill would not. Both measures do allow veterans to go outside the system for care if they live more than 40 miles from a VA facility. The Senate bill also provides millions of dollars in new funding to build additional VA hospitals and hire more doctors that is not included in the House provision. And the House legislation calls for an independent investigation into issues at the VA.

But these issues won't hold up a legislative fix for long, members on both sides say. Leaders in both chambers expect to reconcile the bills quickly and send them to President Obama's desk.

On the Senate side, members and aides involved in the issue feel that the bills are in the "same ballpark," a spokesman for Reid (a baseball fan) said Tuesday.

Miller, who hadn't seen the Senate bill but was involved in the negotiations on that side of the Capitol during last week's House recess, was similarly optimistic. "I think the House is willing to look at anything that the Senate brings forward. That's the way the process is supposed to work around here. Both Houses, you know, come forward with the legislation that they think would solve the issue. Then it's important for us to come forward and reconcile as quickly as we can," he said Monday.