WASHINGTON – Eager to begin a monthlong break, Congress leavened its customary heavy partisanship on Wednesday with a pinch of compromise, advancing legislation to repair the deeply troubled Department of Veterans Affairs and working to clear funds for highway construction at home and missile defense in Israel.
Yet old habits proved unbreakable less than 100 days before elections with control of Congress at stake. House Republicans hastened to authorize an official lawsuit accusing President Barack Obama of failing to enforce the health care law. And gridlock loomed on the administration’s call for billions to cope with a surge in young immigrants pouring into the U.S. illegally from Central America.
“Stop being mad all the time. Stop just hating all the time,” Obama lectured lawmakers from afar in Kansas City, Missouri, in a speech that was particularly harsh on Republicans. “Come on. Let’s get some work done together.”
There was a modest amount of progress on compromise legislation during the day, and hopes in both parties for considerably more before a scheduled adjournment on Thursday.
On a vote of 420-5, the House overwhelmingly approved a compromise bill to clean up the scandal-soiled VA, where some officials are accused of covering up long delays in patient care. The $16.3 billion measure would allow veterans to get outside care if they live too far from a VA health facility or face a delay of longer than 30 days in getting an appointment.
It also includes money to hire new doctors and allows the fast-track firing of senior officials found to be complicit in hiding agency shortcomings.
The legislation was a compromise between the House and Senate – one of few in the Congress that convened 18 months ago – with less money than Democrats wanted and a significant concession from conservative Republicans as well. It would raise federal deficits by $10 billion, one of very few times since tea party-aligned lawmakers came to power that the House has agreed to new spending without also insisting on offsetting cuts elsewhere in the budget.
Concerns about future costs prompted the conservative Club for Growth to oppose the bill. “It creates an unproven new entitlement that sets taxpayers on a course to spend half a trillion dollars over the next decade,” the organization said.
Even so, a final vote was expected today in the Senate.
The vote on the veterans bill was sandwiched between chapters of a highly partisan debate on the legislation to authorize a lawsuit against the president financed from public funds. Democrats argued it was prelude to impeachment, a charge Republicans denied despite calls for Obama’s removal from some lawmakers aligned with the tea party.
“The people’s representatives will not turn a blind eye to the lawlessness of this president,” said Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colo., arguing for approval of the legislation.
Democratic Rep., Jackie Speier of California was scathing in rebuttal. With an oversized photo of a young child as a backdrop, she noted that Republicans opposed the health care law and have voted dozens of time to dismantle it. “The only other group of people I know who scream when they want something then throw a tantrum when they get it are toddlers,” she said.
The path was bumpy even for one of the items on the bipartisan must-do list.
Legislation to assure uninterrupted funds for highway and bridge construction was stalled at least temporarily in a last-minute dispute between the House and Senate. Aides in both houses expressed confidence it would be resolved in time for final approval on Thursday.
The prospects were far worse for Obama’s call for legislation to address what many lawmakers have called a humanitarian crisis at the border with Mexico.
In the House, Republicans worked to secure the votes for $659 million to cope with the growing influx of young immigrants arriving without parents. Most Democrats are opposed because of a provision allowing rapid deportation of unaccompanied children reaching the United States illegally from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. The White House, which initially agreed to the change, threatened a veto in the unlikely event the legislation reaches Obama’s desk.
The situation was reversed in the Senate, where Democrat-drafted legislation would provide $2.7 billion to deal with the young immigrants but would omit provisions to ease deportation rules. The measure also includes funds for firefighting efforts at home and for Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system.
It cleared a Senate procedural hurdle on a vote of 63-33, three more than the 60 required, a roll call that temporarily masked the deeper disagreements over deportation rules. Officials in both parties predicted the measure would soon collapse.
That would clear the way for the Senate to approve $225 million for Israel’s missile defense system, which is credited with intercepting rockets launched from the Gaza Strip during the current three-week war.
The bill is then expected to clear the House easily as lawmakers head out for a round of summer campaigning.