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‘Blue slip’ problem hangs up veterans toxic exposure bill

Tax benefit for health professionals at rural VA clinics at issue

House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, shown at a recent ceremony, said he hopes the blue slip issue will be resolved this week, before both chambers depart for their July Fourth recesses.
House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, shown at a recent ceremony, said he hopes the blue slip issue will be resolved this week, before both chambers depart for their July Fourth recesses. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

A Senate-passed bill to expand health care and disability benefits to veterans exposed to burn pits or other toxic substances during their service has run into a constitutional objection from the House.

The bill, which would make it easier for veterans to access benefits by presuming that certain types of cancer and respiratory illnesses are connected to service-related exposure, passed the Senate on a bipartisan 84-14 vote last week. 

The House had planned to vote on it as soon as Wednesday. But lawmakers in that chamber are now raising a “blue slip” issue that could send the bill back to the Senate with just two days left to act before both chambers are scheduled to depart for their July Fourth recesses. 

[Senate passes major benefits expansion for sick veterans]

The bill has a blue slip issue because it contains a tax provision, House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., told reporters Wednesday. Under the Constitution’s origination clause, all revenue and tax bills must begin in the House.

“This is the constitutional responsibility of the House to initiate these,” Hoyer said. “So we’re trying to fix that. And as soon as we can get it fixed, we want to pass it.”

The provision at issue is in a section of the bill that gives the Veterans Affairs secretary authority to buy out private service contracts of health care professionals to whom the department has offered employment if the individual agrees to work at a rural VA facility for at least four years. Four lines in that section specifying that the health care professional does not have to pay taxes on the contract buyout is what triggered the blue slip issue. 

The tax provision wasn’t included in an earlier version of the bill the House passed in March, which the Senate amended with the text of the bipartisan deal struck by Veterans’ Affairs Committee leaders in that chamber.

Hoyer said one option for resolving the matter would be to have the Senate request the bill back, strike the provision and send it back to the House. 

“I think that’s the option that’s being looked at,” he said. But Hoyer noted he has not talked to Ways and Means Chairman Richard E. Neal or Speaker Nancy Pelosi about it, so he’s not confident that will be how it’s ultimately resolved.

Neal’s office confirmed the provision at issue but didn’t specify how he’d like to see the matter resolved.

A House source familiar with the issue, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the likely path is for the Senate to request return of the papers rather than have the House formally issue a blue slip and send the bill back. The Senate “is going to have to fix this constitutional defect,” the person said.

The Senate is discussing a path forward, according to a Senate source, who said the House notified the chamber of the blue slip issue only Tuesday despite having the bill text since May. 

Senate Veterans’ Affairs ranking member Jerry Moran, R-Kan., said House and Senate leaders were discussing the issue, but he prefers the House to address it.

“My view is that they either need to fix the problem by removing it and sending the bill back, or better yet overlook the blue slip problem,” he said.

Hoyer said he hopes whatever the fix, the blue slip issue will be resolved this week before both chambers depart for their July Fourth recesses. “We’re trying to get this done in a timely fashion, because I would like to pass it before we leave,” he said.

Aidan Quigley contributed to this report.

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