WASHINGTON (AP) — It's hard to vote against veterans these days.
Majority Leader Harry Reid is counting on voters as well as lawmakers feeling that way in an election year as the Senate takes up legislation this week that addresses dozens of priorities that veterans groups have raised in recent years.
Two weeks after rolling back an effort to slow cost-of-living pension increases for working-age military retirees, the Senate is now being asked to give veterans new benefits that would cost $21 billion over the next decade.
The bill would make more veterans eligible for VA health care, require public colleges to offer in-state tuition rates to all veterans and help seriously wounded veterans get fertility treatments.
The vote could put Senate Republicans in the uncomfortable position of saying no to a politically powerful constituency in a midterm election year. Some Republicans gripe that the new programs would further swell federal deficits.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, the bill's author and the chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs, has gained the endorsement of myriad veterans groups to generate momentum for his bill. Sanders, Reid and other Democrats are counting on public support for the measure despite GOP criticism.
The American Legion, Vietnam Veterans of America and Veterans of Foreign Wars were just some of the groups that lined up beside Sanders recently to tout the proposed new benefits.
In summary, said Ray Kelley, the VFW's legislative director, "there is something in this bill for every generation of veterans."
Republicans so far have focused their criticism on the bill's cost and how to pay for it — by capping the fund that pays for overseas wars and diverting that money toward veteran's health care and benefits. Republican senators said that relying on less war spending doesn't represent true savings. They say the money wouldn't have been spent anyway.
"That's an illusionary pay-for. That's not real money," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.
Sanders, I-Vt., has emphasized that many of the provisions have broad, bipartisan support. For example, the requirement that public universities charge student veterans no more than the in-state tuition rate has sailed through the House on a 390-0 vote. Another provision authorizing the VA to enter into 27 leases for health clinics passed the House on a vote of 346-1.
The bill has included language eliminating a planned slowing of annual increases in many military retirees' pensions. President Barack Obama recently signed separate legislation restoring that money for all who served in the military before this year, so Sanders plans to amend the measure to avert the cuts for those joining the services this year and in the future, too.
At this point, GOP senators are mostly focusing their concerns on the terms of the debate. If Reid doesn't allow for an ample number of amendments, they say they're prepared to vote no.
"I think I have as good a knowledge of veterans issues as Senator Sanders does, so therefore, I think I should be able to debate and amend as I choose to do so," said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. "If Senator Reid blocks that ability, then I'm not conducive to allowing just a rubberstamp to take place."
Among the major veteran groups, the biggest holdout is American Veterans, which fears that adding more veterans to the VA's health care and benefit rolls will worsen care and services for those already in the system. VA health care is generally reserved for those with service-connected disabilities and those with very low incomes.
The bill would open VA health care to uninsured veterans with no service-connected disability. It also would extend from five to 10 years the time in which veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan can get VA health care regardless of their disability status.
"You have an already stressed bureaucracy, then, you're going to throw more on it for them to do," said Stewart Hickey, American Veterans' national executive director. "You're just going to compound the problem."
Hickey said there are some sections of the bill his organization supports, but he's worried it's too big and its scope is too broad. He said some of the spending isn't fiscally responsible.
One section directs the VA to undertake a two-year pilot program in which the department would cover the cost of fitness center memberships for veterans diagnosed as overweight and who live more than 15 minutes from a VA facility with a gym.
"To me, this is just going to make veterans look like greedy pigs," Hickey said.
The bill is expected to get overwhelming support from Democratic lawmakers, with 21 already signed on as co-sponsors. Sanders has met with Republicans behind the scenes, but so far has no takers. He proudly describes the bill as the most comprehensive veterans' legislation to be offered in decades.
"This legislation did not come from Bernie Sanders. It didn't come from anybody else on the committee. It came from the veterans' community itself," Sanders said.
Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., a member of the committee, praised Sanders' efforts and noted that many of the bill's provisions were passed by the panel.
"It's not for political purposes. He really would like to get something done," Boozman said of Sanders. "... What I'd like to see happen is throw the bill out there. Let's open it up to amendments and let's find some pay-fors."
Other GOP senators contend Democrats are using the bill to enhance their political standing with veterans groups.
"It's going nowhere. It's just a political exercise," Graham said.
Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina, the top Republican on the committee, agreed.
"I don't think they want this passed. I think they know they'd have troubles in the House, and they like this issue," Burr said.