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Amended veterans toxic exposure bill teed up in House

Measure would extend health care and disability benefits to Iraq and Afghanistan veterans

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., who heads the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee, has been working to get the bill passed.
Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., who heads the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee, has been working to get the bill passed. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The House plans to take up a revised version of sweeping veterans benefit legislation this week after running into constitutional objections to the Senate-passed bill, which included a provision House tax writers never formally blessed.

The Rules Committee on Tuesday posted the new veterans bill text as an amendment to an unrelated Senate bill that passed that chamber in February but was later included in the fiscal 2022 omnibus spending package. Rules was meeting Tuesday afternoon to consider the measure, which is listed among the bills that the House could take up this week.

The core of the veterans bill would make servicemembers who contracted any of 23 conditions — from brain cancer to hypertension — after being deployed to an Iraq or Afghanistan combat zone automatically eligible for veterans health care and disability benefits. That’s a change from current law, which requires veterans to prove their illnesses were a direct result of their deployments rather than some other factor.

But after the Senate in June passed the expansion — which the Congressional Budget Office estimated as costing nearly $280 billion over a decade — House lawmakers discovered an issue that would hold up final passage of the bill for weeks.

Senators had added a provision that would give the Department of Veterans Affairs authority to buy out the contracts of doctors, nurses and other health care practitioners who agreed to work for the VA at rural or “highly rural” veterans clinics.

That buyout money would normally be taxed as income, so the Senate sponsors wanted to make that tax-free. But since the House never considered that tax provision, it ran afoul of the constitutional requirement that all revenue measures originate in that chamber, known as a blue slip.

Senate Veterans’ Affairs Chairman Jon Tester, D-Mont., tried to quickly fix the problem by unanimous consent on June 23 through an “engrossment correction” just before the chamber recessed for two weeks. But Sen. Patrick J. Toomey, R-Pa., one of 14 Republicans to vote “no” in that chamber, objected.

His concern wasn’t about the cost of the new benefits expansion, but the fact that the CBO estimated nearly $400 billion of existing VA health spending would no longer be bound by discretionary spending caps.

The alternative would have been to jump through the traditional procedural hoops in the Senate this month to get the blue slip problem fixed, including a motion to request the return of the Senate-passed bill from the House. Or, the House could pass a separate blue slip resolution sending the measure back to the Senate. Either way, the House would have had to re-vote on the amended version anyway after the Senate worked through its process.

And the House couldn’t simply amend the Senate-passed bill to strike the blue slip provision and send it back, because lawmakers in that chamber view it as the Senate’s responsibility to fix such “constitutional defects.” Taking up a separate vehicle allows the House to address the matter without waiting for the Senate to act, and without technically fixing a problem of the Senate’s making.

The House originally passed a similar but more costly version of the veterans toxic exposure bill, without the provision that caused the blue slip issue, by a 256-174 vote in March with all Democrats and 34 Republicans backing it. The Senate vote on its version was 84-14.

Daniel Peake and Mark Satter contributed to this report.

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