Congress Races to Bills; Sue Prez 07/31 07:06
Congress is racing to wrap up legislation addressing chronic problems at the
Veterans Affairs Department and a shortfall in highway money ahead of its
five-week summer break. Deep divisions cast doubt on any resolution to the
surge of immigrants at the border.
WASHINGTON (AP) -- Congress is racing to wrap up legislation addressing
chronic problems at the Veterans Affairs Department and a shortfall in highway
money ahead of its five-week summer break. Deep divisions cast doubt on any
resolution to the surge of immigrants at the border.
The institutional split of a Republican-led House and Democratic-controlled
Senate has added up to inaction, especially in a midterm election year with
control of the Senate at stake. In the final days before leaving Washington,
lawmakers have struggled to compromise on a handful of bills to deal with the
nation's pressing problems amid overwhelming partisanship.
Congress is poised to send President Barack Obama legislation revamping the
VA, with a Senate vote expected Thursday. Lawmakers also are working on a path
forward for highway and transit projects.
The legislative effort came against the backdrop of a partisan House vote to
sue Obama for unilateral changes in his signature health care law. Republicans
accused him of shredding the Constitution, while Democrats described the vote
as a veiled attempt at impeachment.
The near party-line vote on Wednesday was 225-201.
Traveling in Missouri, Obama scolded congressional Republicans for wasting
time on a lawsuit rather than legislative action.
"Stop being mad all the time. Stop just hating all the time. Come on," the
president said in a speech in Kansas City.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said the House vote was about defending
the Constitution, "and acting decisively when it may be compromised."
The Senate was poised to wrap up a sweeping, $16.3 billion bill to overhaul
the scandal-plagued VA after reports of patients dying while awaiting treatment
and long delays in scheduling appointments.
Two weeks ago, the national commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars
delivered an ultimatum to Congress: "Pass a bill or don't come back from
recess." Lawmakers listened, as the agency provides health care to nearly 9
million enrolled veterans and disability compensation to nearly 4 million
The House overwhelmingly approved the bill, 420-5, on Wednesday and an
equally decisive vote was expected in the Senate.
The measure includes $10 billion in emergency spending to help veterans who
can't get prompt appointments with VA doctors to obtain outside care; $5
billion to hire doctors, nurses and other medical staff; and about $1.3 billion
to lease 27 new clinics across the country.
Determined to help Israel amid weeks of deadly fighting in Gaza with Hamas,
the House and Senate also were expected to approve $225 million for Israel's
Iron Dome missile defense system that intercepts short-range rockets and
Support for Israel is strongly bipartisan in Congress. Immigration, on the
other hand, causes sharp splits.
The House moved toward a vote Thursday on a $659 million measure that would
allow migrant youths to be sent home more quickly and would dispatch National
Guard troops to the border.
Although the White House has backed legal changes to speed deportation of
the kids, the administration said the House bill "could make the situation
worse, not better," by setting arbitrary timelines that could create backlogs
and hurt due process.
A companion bill was being offered in the House to satisfy conservatives
eager to see Obama blocked on immigration. It would prevent the president from
expanding an existing program that's granted work permits to more than 500,000
immigrants brought to this country illegally as kids and allowed them to stay
here without threat of deportation.
The Senate's version of the bill --- a $3.5 billion package that also
includes money for Western wildfires and Israel --- faces opposition from
Republicans and some Democrats, who argue the measure amounts to a blank check
for Obama with no policy changes.
With a day left before the government plans to start reducing federal
highway aid payments to states, legislation to keep the money flowing was hung
up over a disagreement between the House and Senate over timing and how to pay
for the measure.
Democrats were increasingly optimistic they had the leverage to force
Boehner to allow a vote on a bill that passed the Senate 79-18 Tuesday. That
bill would fund highway and transit aid through mid-December, when supporters
hope Congress will come to grips with the chronic funding problems that have
plagued transportation programs in recent years.
Boehner has threatened to strip the bill of the Senate's changes and send it
back to the Senate in the form the House initially passed over a week ago. It
wasn't clear Wednesday that he had the votes to do that.
Since then, "a much better bill has come out of the Senate in a strong,
bipartisan vote," House Democratic Caucus Chairman Xavier Becerra, D-Calif.,
said. "I would do everything possible to make sure we wind up passing the
better law, which is the Senate bill."
The Transportation Department has said that by Friday the trust fund will no
longer have enough money to cover promised aid and states should expect an
average reduction of 28 percent in aid payments.