VA Bill Was An Easy Sell, But Some Senators Still Feel Sticker Shock

A preliminary analysis by the Congressional Budget Office says that a Veterans Affairs bill recently passed by the Senate could cost $50 billion per year. No lawmaker wants to vote against veterans, but the price tag has a lot of lawmakers nervous.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

No politician wants to be seen voting against veterans. A recent bill to increase veterans' benefits and overhaul much of the VA sailed through the Senate, and now the House is working on a compromise to get it to the president. Despite to the momentum, one thing caught lawmakers in both parties by surprise this week - the bill's cost. NPR's Laura Sullivan reports.

LAURA SULLIVAN, BYLINE: The VA bill was an easy sell. It sends cash to the much-maligned agency to provide better services, hire doctors, do more for service members with PTSD or those who have survived sexual assault. Only three senators voted against it. But just as the Senate bill was passing, the office here that does the number-crunching got out the calculator. The Congressional Budget Office reported that the bill will likely cost some $50 billion a year. That number was so high, some lawmakers didn't think it was right. The budget office says it is. That's close to how much Congress funded the entire Department of Education last year.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

SENATOR BERNIE SANDERS: The cost of war is very expensive.

SULLIVAN: Senator Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont who cosponsored the bill, took to the floor to defend it.

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SANDERS: The cost of war continues until the last veteran receives the care and the benefits that he or she has earned on the battlefield.

SULLIVAN: The House and Senate are now working on a compromise to send to the president. The House already passed similar bills, and most representatives seem eager to say how much they support the measure. But there is just a little bit of caution creeping in. Oklahoma Republican Tom Cole is close to House leaders, and he put it this way.

REPRESENTATIVE TOM COLE: It's going to concern some people. And we're going to have to figure out ways to pay for it.

SULLIVAN: Cole was in a Capitol basement hallway, where he had just come out of a Republican caucus meeting. He said when it comes to the VA right now, Congress needs to do the right thing, even if it means writing a big check.

COLE: A lot of our service people grew up in service families. And they hear mom and dad talking across the table. And the discussion is, well, you know, the promised me this, this and this - didn't deliver. Then, you know, you really hurt your own future recruiting.

SULLIVAN: Florida representative Jeff Miller, who chairs the House Veterans Affairs Committee, also raised a flag about the cost.

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CONGRESSMAN JEFF MILLER: In hearing after hearing, the committee heard from VA about their wasteful spending on IT programs, poorly managed contracts, large bonuses. This is not an agency that Congress should be cutting a no-strings-attached blank check.

SULLIVAN: Miller and other lawmakers say any final package that is sent to the president must have lots of offsets from other parts of government to pay for it. If that happens, it will take some time for a Democratic Senate and a Republican House to agree on which other agencies' budgets should be cut. Laura Sullivan. NPR News, the capital.

SIEGEL: This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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