WASHINGTON — The Senate gave final approval late Thursday to a significant expansion of veterans’ health care and legislation to replenish the Highway Trust Fund through next spring.
The two votes were something of a consolation prize for a chamber marred this year by gridlock. The vote on the veterans bill was 91-3; the highway bill vote was 81-13.
Even supporters of the highway bill conceded that the chamber had simply punted on dealing with the critical problems of the nation’s crumbling infrastructure until next year. The measure does not try to find new ways of financing essential construction projects or to make up for falling gas-tax receipts.
Three Republican senators voted no on the veterans health bill, saying they objected to the cost: Bob Corker of Tennessee, Tom Coburn of Oklahoma and Jeff Sessions of Alabama.
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Prompted by the long waiting lists at veterans health centers and the bureaucratic efforts to hide them, the bill allocates about $17 billion to clean up the scandal-scarred Department of Veterans Affairs by granting the agency’s secretary broad authority to fire and demote senior executives.
It would also authorize the leasing or construction of 27 health facilities and set aside $5 billion to hire doctors, nurses and other health-care providers, and $10 billion to pay for veterans’ care at private and public facilities not run by the department. Veterans would have access to private care if they live more than 40 miles from a Veterans Affairs clinic or cannot get an appointment within 30 days.
The bill, which had passed the House by a 420-5 vote Wednesday, was a compromise between House Republicans, who responded to the scandal with demands for increased accountability, and Senate Democrats, who insisted on more resources for the hundreds of thousands of veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The highway bill lacked such ideals. If Congress had failed to act, an exhausted Highway Trust Fund would have forced the Transportation Department to cut infrastructure funding by 28 percent, beginning Friday.
Instead, the Senate bowed to the House, which had approved an $11 billion measure financed largely by a sleight of budgetary hand that avoids tax increases. Under the maneuver, “pension smoothing,” corporations will be allowed to set aside less money for pensions, which will increase profits and raise business-tax receipts.
“The highway bill is good news-bad news,” said Sen. Angus King, I-Maine. “The good news is, we did something. The bad news is, it was the 11th punt in the last six years and showed an inability to face a real problem and deal with it.”
On Tuesday, a bipartisan group of senators rejected the House approach in financing the Highway Trust Fund, passing instead a smaller measure. But House Republicans on Thursday rejected the Senate bill in a 220-205 vote, leaving senators the choice of passing the House bill or allowing the trust fund to run dry.