Hopes fade for Senate vote to help veterans

WASHINGTON – Hopes faded late Wednesday that key senators could quickly craft a compromise bill that would help veterans facing long appointment waits at veterans hospitals and make it easier to fire administrators who covered up the delays.

Senators had hoped to vote as soon as Thursday on a measure to address an uproar over veterans’ health care following allegations that veterans have died while waiting to see a Veterans Affairs doctor. Senators wanted to pass the bill before Friday’s 70th anniversary of the Allied invasion of Europe in World War II. Up to a dozen senators were expected to attend the D-Day ceremonies in France.

Leading the negotiations were Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the Republican presidential candidate in 2008, and independent Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee and the only self-described socialist in Congress. They met face to face twice Wednesday for a total of nearly two hours.

Sanders had said Wednesday afternoon he was “cautiously optimistic” that a vote could be held Thursday.

But a spokesman for Sanders said a few hours later that talks would continue Thursday, making a vote that day unlikely. Senators fly to France on Thursday evening.

“Chairman Sanders held productive discussions today with Sen. McCain and others about how to provide high-quality health care to veterans in a timely manner,” spokesman Michael Briggs said in a statement.

Sanders “hopes to reach an agreement to take before the full Senate as soon as possible,” Briggs said.

Also involved in the talks were Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.; North Carolina Sen. Richard Burr, the senior Republican on the Veterans Affairs Committee; and Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee.

Sanders acknowledged that he and McCain make an unlikely pair, but he was upbeat about the prospects of quickly reaching a deal. “I’m cautiously optimistic,” he said interview Wednesday before prospects for a quick resolution dimmed. “McCain is serious, I’m serious and Reid is serious.”