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Senate passes VA, highway bills, heads to recess

The Senate successfully passed bills to fix the VA and fund the Highway Trust Fund, but failed to pass a bill address the flood of migrant children at the border.
By Gabrielle Levy   |   Aug. 1, 2014 at 1:29 PM   |   Comments

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WASHINGTON, Aug. 1 (UPI) -- The Senate passed two key pieces of legislation in a late night session Thursday, sending a fix for the Department of Veterans Affairs and a highway funding patch to the president for signature, while a measure to address the border crisis failed.

After efforts from Oklahoma Republican Tom Coburn to block the bill containing over $10 billion in non-offset emergency spending, senators voted 91-3 to pass the VA conference bill.

"The problem is not money at the VA. The problem is management, accountability and culture," Coburn said, criticizing the bill for adding to the deficit.

Sens. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., and Bob Corker, R-Tenn., joined Coburn in voting against the measure, which passed 420-5 Wednesday in the House.

The bill was a deal announced by the chairmen of the House and Senate Veterans Affairs committees, Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., on Monday. It includes $10 billion in emergency, or non-offset, spending to pay for veterans to obtain outside care, and $1.5 billion in emergency funding that will allow the VA to enter into leases at 27 facilities around the country to increase capacity. The additional $5 billion in the deal, which will go toward hiring more doctors, nurses and staff, will be offset by cuts elsewhere in the VA's budget.

Later, the Senate passed a patch for the Highway Trust Fund, which had ping-ponged between the two chambers as Democrats and Republicans argued over how to offset the spending and how long it should go.

Ultimately, the Senate voted 81-13 to pass the $10.8 billion patch approved by the House that provides crucial funding for transportation and infrastructure projects through next spring. On Wednesday, it had passed a smaller measure meant to expire in December, which would have forced Congress to take up the issue again during the lame-duck session.

The thinking goes that Congress could more likely pass a long-term fix after the partisan furor of elections have passed and before the new session begins. But Republicans, hoping to take control of the Senate, object to lame-duck legislation that would reflex Democrats' higher-tax, higher-federal involvement priorities.

Despite their otherwise productive Thursday evening, the Senate failed to pass a $2.7 billion bill to give the administration emergency funding to handle the humanitarian crisis at the border.

Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., killed the bill when he raised a budget point of order, which requires 60 votes to overcome. Every Republican, and Democrats Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Joe Manchin of West Virginia, voted against it.

Meanwhile, House Republicans scrambled to rework their own version of the border bill, after canceling a vote Thursday due to lack of support.

House leadership said it planned to hold a vote Friday, and while the Senate is in session Friday, it is unlikely to pass the House's version of the border bill.

Follow @gabbilevy and @UPI on Twitter.
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