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Congress races to finish veterans, highway bills

House Speaker John Boehner heads to the House chamber Wednesday in preparation of the vote to President Barack Obama. (Associated Press: J. SCOTT APPLEWHITE)

By DONNA CASSATA
The Associated Press

7/31/2014

WASHINGTON  — Congress is racing to wrap up legislation addressing chronic problems at the Veterans Affairs Department and a shortfall in highway money ahead of its five-week summer break. Deep divisions cast doubt on any resolution to the surge of immigrants at the border.

The institutional split of a Republican-led House and Democratic-controlled Senate has added up to inaction, especially in a midterm election year with control of the Senate at stake. In the final days before leaving Washington, lawmakers have struggled to compromise on a handful of bills to deal with the nation's pressing problems amid overwhelming partisanship.

Congress is poised to send President Barack Obama legislation revamping the VA, with a Senate vote expected Thursday. Lawmakers also are working on a path forward for highway and transit projects.

The legislative effort came against the backdrop of a partisan House vote to sue Obama for unilateral changes in his signature health care law. Republicans accused him of shredding the Constitution, while Democrats described the vote as a veiled attempt at impeachment.

The near party-line vote on Wednesday was 225-201.

Traveling in Missouri, Obama scolded congressional Republicans for wasting time on a lawsuit rather than legislative action.

"Stop being mad all the time. Stop just hating all the time. Come on," the president said in a speech in Kansas City.

House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said the House vote was about defending the Constitution, "and acting decisively when it may be compromised."

The Senate was poised to wrap up a sweeping, $16.3 billion bill to overhaul the scandal-plagued VA after reports of patients dying while awaiting treatment and long delays in scheduling appointments.

Two weeks ago, the national commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars delivered an ultimatum to Congress: "Pass a bill or don't come back from recess." Lawmakers listened, as the agency provides health care to nearly 9 million enrolled veterans and disability compensation to nearly 4 million veterans.

The House overwhelmingly approved the bill, 420-5, on Wednesday and an equally decisive vote was expected in the Senate.

The measure includes $10 billion in emergency spending to help veterans who can't get prompt appointments with VA doctors to obtain outside care; $5 billion to hire doctors, nurses and other medical staff; and about $1.3 billion to lease 27 new clinics across the country.

Determined to help Israel amid weeks of deadly fighting in Gaza with Hamas, the House and Senate also were expected to approve $225 million for Israel's Iron Dome missile defense system that intercepts short-range rockets and mortars.

Support for Israel is strongly bipartisan in Congress. Immigration, on the other hand, causes sharp splits.

The House moved toward a vote Thursday on a $659 million measure that would allow migrant youths to be sent home more quickly and would dispatch National Guard troops to the border.

Although the White House has backed legal changes to speed deportation of the kids, the administration said the House bill "could make the situation worse, not better," by setting arbitrary timelines that could create backlogs and hurt due process.

A companion bill was being offered in the House to satisfy conservatives eager to see Obama blocked on immigration. It would prevent the president from expanding an existing program that's granted work permits to more than 500,000 immigrants brought to this country illegally as kids and allowed them to stay here without threat of deportation.

The Senate's version of the bill — a $3.5 billion package that also includes money for Western wildfires and Israel — faces opposition from Republicans and some Democrats, who argue the measure amounts to a blank check for Obama with no policy changes.

With a day left before the government plans to start reducing federal highway aid payments to states, legislation to keep the money flowing was hung up over a disagreement between the House and Senate over timing and how to pay for the measure.

Democrats were increasingly optimistic they had the leverage to force Boehner to allow a vote on a bill that passed the Senate 79-18 Tuesday. That bill would fund highway and transit aid through mid-December, when supporters hope Congress will come to grips with the chronic funding problems that have plagued transportation programs in recent years.

Boehner has threatened to strip the bill of the Senate's changes and send it back to the Senate in the form the House initially passed over a week ago. It wasn't clear Wednesday that he had the votes to do that.

Since then, "a much better bill has come out of the Senate in a strong, bipartisan vote," House Democratic Caucus Chairman Xavier Becerra, D-Calif., said. "I would do everything possible to make sure we wind up passing the better law, which is the Senate bill."

The Transportation Department has said that by Friday the trust fund will no longer have enough money to cover promised aid and states should expect an average reduction of 28 percent in aid payments.

Associated Press writers Joan Lowy and Erica Werner contributed to this report.

The Trucker staff can be reached to comment on this article at editor@thetrucker.com.

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