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After the massive scandal at the US Department of Veterans Affairs, Congress reportedly reached an agreement on how to the fix the nation’s publicly run health-care system for veterans — despite at times appearing like both sides of the debate would fail to set a deal.

Negotiations between Senate Democrats and House Republicans seemingly broke down on Thursday, July 24, as both sides held dueling press conferences accusing each other of bad faith.

The negotiations appeared to be on much better ground as of the weekend, with staffers from both sides resuming discussions. House VA Chair Jeff Miller (R-FL) and Senate VA Chair Bernie Sanders (I-VT) also agreed to fly back to Washington, DC, if it would push the negotiations forward.


On Sunday, congressional staffers confirmed they had reached a deal. Neither side disclosed details on what, exactly, the final compromise will look like. A joint press conference scheduled for Monday will presumably lay out the details of the plan.

"I can say that an agreement has been reached to deal with both the short-term and long-term needs of the VA," said Michael Briggs, a spokesperson for Sanders.

The debate centered around how Congress should fix a VA health-care system that simply doesn’t have enough doctors and staff for the number of patients it sees every year. The lack of capacity is one of the reasons schedulers and administrators in Phoenix and at other VA hospitals around the country manipulated records. The falsified reports made it look like VA hospitals were still hitting goals, which were linked to bonus payments, for seeing patients in a timely manner.

Before Congress reached a deal, they had to work through one remaining hurdle: funding.

The debate focused on money


Senator Bernie Sanders speaks at the VA conference committee. (Win McNamee / Getty Images News)

The Congressional Budget Office estimated that the bill passed by the Senate would cost $35 billion. The final cost will likely change in the final bill, but the high CBO estimate gives a rough idea of just how much money was being debated — and why a highly budget-conscious Congress had so much trouble reaching an agreement.

On Thursday, Miller released what he framed as a compromise between the original House and Senate proposals. The bill would, among other changes, fund a $10 billion, two-year pilot program that would let veterans get private care outside the VA system, allow the VA to hire more doctors, and establish more accountability measures.

But the bill didn’t include the full $17.6 billion in funding requested by the VA. The VA said the funds would help expand its infrastructure and hire new staff, including doctors, to get ahead of a surge of veterans coming home from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.


Sanders spokesperson Briggs said the senator doesn’t necessarily want the final compromise to include all of the VA’s requested funding, but he would like to see at least some of it in a compromise.

House Republicans, a staffer said, would prefer to see the additional funding requested by the VA dealt with in separate discussions about broader budget bills. Republicans haven’t decided whether the request is too much, but they would like more time to work through the issue in separate budget negotiations to see what justifies such a big increase in funds and how the money should be appropriated.

Miller put it more candidly in a recent statement: “I am committed to giving VA the resources it needs to provide our veterans with the care and benefits they have earned. But if there’s one thing we’ve learned over the last few months, it’s that we can’t trust VA’s numbers. That includes the $17.6 billion in additional funding Acting Secretary Sloan Gibson asked for today.”

No one expected to be completely happy with the final bill


A military veteran walks after having his prosthetic leg serviced at a VA hospital. (John Moore / Getty Images News)

Prior to reaching a deal, both sides said they would each need to ultimately give something up if they were to reach a deal in time for the August recess.

"We’re trying to reach a middle-ground that probably nobody will be completely happy with," Briggs said, "but it will do a lot of good for the VA and for veterans."

Some veterans advocates, meanwhile, don’t like the idea of putting veterans into private care. As they see it, veterans are multifaceted patients with all sorts of injuries, both mental and physical, that need a comprehensive, specialized approach that the VA is built to take on. The private system, on the other hand, is structured more for an everyday patient that might deal with fewer physical and mental health problems.

"I’m not sure that our members would benefit greatly from this legislation," Carl Blake of Paralyzed Veterans of America said. From Blake’s perspective, veterans with major disabilities, like those his organization represents, are never going to find the kind of care they need at a private hospital.


A major concern for veterans groups is that Congress will enact the two-year pilot program for private care, assume the VA’s problems have been fixed, and leave the system to deteriorate after the pilot program ends. That, veterans advocates argued, would leave the VA worse off than it is today, because the pilot program would expire at a time more veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan will be entering the system.

Joe Violante, national legislative director for Disabled American Veterans, said adding more funding to the system, as veterans advocates have recommended for years in independent budget proposals, is key to a successful bill that will leave the VA in better shape. He argued, “If they’re not going to ensure that there’s funding available for the VA to expand during these two years, I’d rather see them do nothing at this point.”

Congressional staffers confirmed on Sunday that Congress will do something, although the details of the deal weren’t disclosed. As they see it, the final compromise might not satisfy everyone, but it could help alleviate a system that’s been clearly strained by too many patients, too few doctors, and misguided regulations for years.

Update: This article was updated to reflect the announcement of a deal on Sunday.

Source: German Lopez for Vox


Fresh off a long and unbroken string of losses in the federal courts, the Liberty Counsel today launched a petition campaign which calls on Congress to file articles of impeachment against President Obama. From Liberty Counsel head Mat Staver.

Liberty Counsel will lose yet again.  

h/t: Joe.My.God

Today Representatives Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI) and John Conyers (D-MI) and Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) will introduce legislation to strengthen the Voting Rights Act of 1965 in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision last June invalidating a critical section of the VRA. The legislation, known as “The Voting Rights Amendment Act of 2014,” represents the first attempt by a bipartisan group in Congress to reinstate the vital protections of the VRA that the Supreme Court took away.

In the Shelby County v. Holder ruling on June 25, 2013, the Court’s conservative majority struck down Section 4 of the VRA, the formula that compelled specific states with a well-documented history of voting discrimination to clear their voting changes with the federal government under Section 5 of the VRA. The two provisions were always meant to work together; without Section 4, Section 5 became a zombie, applying to zero states.

Section 4 covered nine states (Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia) and parts of six others (in California, Florida, Michigan, New York, North Carolina, South Dakota) based on evidence of voting discrimination against blacks and other minority groups dating back to the 1960s and 1970s. Since the Shelby decision, eight states previously covered under Section 4 have passed or implemented new voting restrictions. This includes onerous new laws in states like North Carolina and Texas, which the Justice Department objected to under other provisions of the VRA (Sections 2 and 3).

The Sensenbrenner-Conyers-Leahy bill strengthens the VRA in five distinct ways:

1: The legislation draws a new coverage formula for Section 4, thereby resurrecting Section 5. States with five violations of federal law to their voting changes over the past fifteen years will have to submit future election changes for federal approval. This new formula would currently apply to Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas. Local jurisdictions would be covered if they commit three or more violations or have one violation and “persistent, extremely low minority turnout” over the past fifteen years.

The formula is based on a rolling calendar, updated with a current fifteen-year time period to exempt states who are no longer discriminating or add new ones who are, creating a deterrent against future voting rights violations. It’s based on empirical conditions and current data, not geography or a fixed time period—which voting rights advocates hope will satisfy Chief Justice John Roberts should the new legislation be enacted and reach the Supreme Court.

The new Section 4 proposal is far from perfect. It does not apply to states with an extensive record of voting discrimination, like Alabama (where civil rights protests in Selma gave birth to the VRA), Arizona, Florida, North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia, which were previously subject to Section 5. Nor does it apply to states like Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin that have enacted new voting restrictions in the past few years.

Moreover, rulings against voter ID laws—like in Texas in 2012—will not count as a new violation. Voter ID laws can still be blocked by the Department of Justice or federal courts in the new states covered under Section 4, but that will not be included as one of the five violations needed to keep the state covered. This exemption for voter ID laws was written to win the support of House majority leader Eric Cantor and other Republicans.

2: The legislation strengthens Section 3 of the VRA, which has been described as the Act’s “secret weapon.” Under Section 3, jurisdictions not covered by Section 4 could be “bailed-in” to federal supervision, but plaintiffs had to show evidence of intentional voting discrimination, which is very difficult to do in court. Under the new Section 3 proposal, any violation of the VRA or federal voting rights law—whether intentional or not—can be grounds for a bail-in, which will make it far easier to cover new states. (One major caveat, again, is that court objections to voter ID laws cannot be used as grounds for “bail-in” under Section 3.)

3: The legislation mandates that jurisdictions in all fifty states have to provide notice in the local media and online of any election procedures related to redistricting changes within 120 days before a federal election and the moving of a polling place. This will make it easier for citizens to identify potentially harmful voting changes in the forty-six states not subject to Sections 4 and 5.

4: The legislation makes it easier to seek a preliminary injunction against a potentially discriminatory voting law. Plaintiffs will now only have to show that the hardship to them outweighs the hardship to the state if a law is blocked in court pending a full trial. There will be a preliminary injunction hearing on North Carolina’s voting law in July 2014, before the full trial takes place July 2015.

5: The legislation reaffirms that the attorney general can send federal observers to monitor elections in states subject to Section 4 and expands the AG’s authority to send observers to jurisdictions with a history of discriminating against language minority groups, which includes parts of twenty-five states.

The bill is certain to have its critics, including on the left. Voting rights supporters will argue, justifiably, that the new Section 4 formula does not apply to enough states and wrongly treats voter ID laws differently than other discriminatory voting changes. Despite these flaws, the legislation represents a significant improvement over the disastrous post-Shelby status quo, which has seen states like North Carolina and Texas rush to pass blatantly discriminatory voting restrictions after being freed from federal oversight. The legislation strengthens voting rights protections in a number of tangible ways and gives the federal government and voting rights advocates new tools to combat voting discrimination.

The sponsors of the bill have a lot of credibility on this issue. Sensenbrenner, as chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, shepherded through the 2006 reauthorization of the VRA—which passed 390-33 in the House and 98-0 in the Senate. Conyers first entered Congress in 1965, the year of the VRA’s passage, and has served on the House Judiciary Committee ever since. Leahy is chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and has recently worked with Sensenbrenner on reforming the NSA.

The problem of contemporary voting discrimination ultimately requires a solution that only Congress can provide. It was Congress, after all, that passed the VRA in 1965 in response to the failure of litigation to stop the mass disenfranchisement of black voters in the South. Yes, yes, I realize that a Congress that can scarcely do more than name a Post Office nowadays is not likely to resurrect the VRA any time soon—especially when so much of the GOP is devoted to erecting new barriers to the ballot box. But now that there’s legislation on the table, members of Congress face a choice: Do you want to make it easier or harder for people to vote? The question, and answer, is really that simple.

h/t: Ari Berman at The Nation


House GOP Tells President They’ll Worry About Syria After They Come Back From Vacation

House Republicans have been ranting and raving all week about the President’s position on military…

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‘I am not a dictator,’ says Obama after failure of sequester talks with Congress leaders

(Photo: Charles Dharapak / AP)

President says midnight budget cuts are the “choice” of Republicans who stonewalled any compromise to avert them.

Read the complete story.

WASHINGTON — The Violence Against Women Act is finally heading to the president’s desk this week after a dragged out political fight over expanding protections to Native American, LGBT and immigrant victims of abuse.

The House voted 286 to 138 on Thursday to pass the bipartisan Senate version of VAWA.

The vote came just after the House rejected its own GOP bill, 166 to 257, which drew loud cheers in the chamber. Sixty Republicans voted against the GOP bill.

Throughout the debate, House Republicans maintained that their bill would have covered all women. But the reality is that it didn’t go as far as the bipartisan Senate bill. The House bill stripped out protections for LGBT victims of abuse, it didn’t give tribal courts new authority in certain domestic violence cases and it added new eligibility restrictions for U Visas for abused immigrant women. The House bill also entirely left out two separate measures attached to the Senate bill: the SAFER Act, which helps law enforcement address a backlog in untested rape kits, and the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act, which targets human trafficking.

The House Republican bill appeared doomed before it hit the floor. It had zero support from Democrats, and a growing number of Republicans were saying they couldn’t support it.

H/T: Jennifer Bendery at HuffPo

WASHINGTON — The House Ethics Committee said Wednesday it will continue an investigation of Illinois Republican Rep. Aaron Schock over allegations he solicited donations of more than $5,000 per donor to a super political action committee. The committee also said it’s continuing a probe of whether a trip New York Democrat Bill Owens took to Taiwan was arranged by lobbyists for the country’s government.

Both cases had been referred to the House committee by the Office of Congressional Ethics, a separate, outside ethics office. The House committee announced its decision to continue looking into each case on Wednesday, while releasing OCE’s report on both cases.

In a statement, the ethics committee said that in both cases merely “conducting further review … does not itself indicate that any violation has occurred, or reflect any judgment on behalf of the committee.” The committee also said it would refrain from further comment pending completion of initial reviews.

Both Schock and Owens said they expect to be exonerated by the House committee.

Schock’s case involves an allegation he asked House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., to contribute $25,000 from his leadership PAC to a super PAC that backed Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., in a House primary against Rep. Don Manzullo. Kinzinger won the March 2012 primary. Redistricting following the 2010 census put the two congressmen in the same and the primary.

According to the OCE report, the Super PAC backing Kinzinger, the Campaign for Primary Accountability, received a minimum of $115,000 that came from “efforts of Rep. Schock and his campaign committee.”

Schock told investigators that he never requested the $25,000 from Cantor. According to the OCE report, Cantor told investigators that Schock had asked him if he would give the $25,000 donation to back Kinzinger. Cantor said he then gave money from his committee to the super PAC backing Kinziger in the primary.

The case involving Owens relates to a December 2011 trip he and his wife took to Taiwan. Owens and his wife were invited by the Chinese Culture University of Taiwan. But the trip may have been arranged by lobbyists for the country. Lawmakers are prohibited from taking trips that are paid for by lobbyists.

Owens said he expected the investigation would clear him of wrongdoing.

H/T: Huffington Post

Al Gore, environmental activist and former vice president, said he was “very pleased” to hear President Barack Obama pledge to combat climate change in his inauguration speech. He urged the president to “follow through” on his commitment.

“There are some actions he can take that do not require congressional approval,” Gore said in an interview that aired Sunday on CNN’s “Fareed Zakaria GPS.”

Gore argued the president should expand current Environmental Protection Agency regulations, saying such action would be protected by the Supreme Court.

“There is a law on the books that requires the EPA to regulate pollution. The Supreme Court has agreed with the obvious interpretation that global warming pollution is pollution,” he said. “It’s been applied to new coal plants. It should be applied to all facilities.”

Environmental groups like the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council have also called on the president to keep his distance from Congress on climate change.

(via reagan-was-a-horrible-president)

WASHINGTON (CNNMoney) — Without help from Congress, the U.S. Postal Service is likely to default on a big bill due Wednesday to the federal government — $5.5 billion to prepay health care benefits for retirees.

Postal officials have said they’re bracing for default on the payment. They also don’t have the money to make a $5.6 billion payment due Sept. 30.

Congress alone has the power to help the service. The Senate passed a bill to help the service back in April, but the full House has yet to consider the issue.

The service is in a financial bind, having reported several quarters worth of multi-billion-dollar losses due to the recession, declining mail volume and the congressional mandate to prefund retirement health care benefits for future retirees.

While default would be a first for the Postal Service, it’s largely symbolic. Postal officials have pledged that employees and subcontractors will continue to be paid and mail will be delivered as normal.


WASHINGTON — House Republicans Tuesday unveiled legislation to get rid of AmeriCorps, the national service program, and cut off federal funding for National Public Radio, public television and Planned Parenthood.

The moves would come in a controversial spending bill that pays for labor, health and education programs for the budget year beginning Oct. 1.

The measure is dead on arrival with Democrats but contains many provisions to please tea party conservatives.

"This bill is an extremely partisan proposal, stands little chance of even being brought up on the House floor, and will rightly be disregarded by both the Senate and the president," said Rep. Norm Dicks of Washington, top Democrat on the Appropriations Committee.

The cuts to community service programs, funded at $1 billion this year, would slash such programs by 74 percent on the path to eliminating them entirely, save for a program for senior citizens. National Public Radio and the Public Broadcasting Service are familiar targets, too, but have been rejected before. NPR is seen as left-leaning while Republicans say PBS could get along just fine without taxpayer help.

But to find the $6.3 billion in cuts across the measure, Republicans went well beyond simply slashing Democratic initiatives. Funding of $10.7 billion to administer the Social Security program, for instance, would be cut $1.1 billion below President Barack Obama’s request, cutting funding for computers upgrades, new hires and “program integrity” money designed to find mistakes and combat fraud. Medicare and the Medicaid health program for the poor and disabled would absorb an even larger cut to operating funds.

The legislation would, however, maintain heating subsidies for the poor at $3.4 billion and Title I school funding at $15 billion and give a slight boost to special education for the disabled. Head Start would get a small increase and grants for local community action groups that serve the elderly and the poor would be maintained at the current budget of $712 million.

h/t: HuffPost Politics

A group of House Democrats filed a friend-of-the-court brief asking a federal appeals court to overturn the Defense of Marriage Act, according to Buzzfeed’s Chris Geidner.

However, 60 Democrats — including 15 who had co-sponsored a bill repealing the DOMA — chose not to sign on to Tuesday’s brief to the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The case hinges on DOMA’s ability to prevent same-sex spouses from receiving federal benefits, which was declared unconstitutional in February 2012 by a U.S. District Court in San Francisco.

The brief, filed by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and 131 other Democrats, argues that the law was motivated by “the desire to disapprove of and disadvantage gay and lesbian couples.” Pelosi and House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-MD) have consistently opposed the law as part of the House Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group (BLAG), which, under Republican leadership, has been defending it in court since the Obama administration’s withdrawal of support for the law last year.

The House Democrats’ brief then argues that DOMA is unconstitutional because Congress hastily passed it in 1996 for political reasons and because the law undercuts Congress’ interest in protecting families and respecting state sovereignty.

H/T: Arturo Garcia at The Raw Story