In dealing with VA scandal, Congress unites - for a change

The U.S. Capitol building on August 1, 2011 in Washington, D.C.

Mark Wilson, Getty Images

In a remarkable turn of events for an otherwise gridlocked Congress, the House and Senate are on the verge of addressing long-wait times and ensuing cover-ups at Veterans Affairs (VA) hospitals around the country just two months after the scandal exploded in the news, a stark contrast to other calamaties where congressional action has been stymied by politics.

It often takes extremes to spur Congress to action these days, and even the most tragic events - like the shooting of 20 elementary school children in Newtown, Conn., in 2012 - have run into ideological battles that shut down any legislation. President Obama said Tuesday that one of the biggest regrets of his presidency is "the fact that this society has not been willing to take some basic steps to keep guns out of the hands of people who can do just, unbelievable damage."

The thousands of veterans forced to wait for care and the dozens of deaths possibly connected to wait times at VA hospitals has proven to be a different story. Less than two months after the scandal broke at the Phoenix VA medical center, Congress is poised to offer a fast fix: allow those who have endured long wait times or live too far from VA facilities to seek care from other doctors.

Veterans' care has broader support than gun control, which peaked at 57 percent after the Newtown shootings but dipped down to 47 percent within six months, a CBS News poll found last March. In contrast, a USA Today poll taken earlier this month found that nearly seven in 10 people say the U.S. government doesn't give enough support to veterans.

"The problem with a mass shooting event like Newtown is while the particular perpetrators are responsible, there is no agreement on the broader solution or how to address it," Allan Lichtman, an American University history professor, told CBS News. "Here with respect to veterans there was bipartisan agreement that there were ways of addressing it."

Veterans' health care, on the other hand, tends to transcend politics in a way that few other issues do.

"It doesn't fit a partisan divide; there's no obvious way of trying to put the political blame on Obama by withholding support from a solution - it could backfire on them," Thomas Mann, a scholar at the Brookings Institution, told CBS News. "It's one of those things that can get done in this environment. It may not be the right thing, mind you, we don't know if the changes are the correct ones...but at least there's some serious discussions underway on the Hill and that's really refreshing to see."

Unlike immigration reform that includes some sort of legalization program, veterans' care has no constituency urging lawmakers to stay away from an issue, Mann said. Plus, the veterans' service organizations are a powerful constituency that has tried to keep politics out of the crisis and push lawmakers toward quicker action.

The looming midterm elections, which normally inject politics into every debate and contribute to D.C.'s gridlock, may also have the opposite effect and spur lawmakers to action on the issue.

"I don't think any of these lawmakers want to be going back to their districts over the summer without some kind of comprehensive legislation they were a part of," Louis Celli, legislative director for the American Legion, told CBS News earlier this month.

Lichtman also said the VA legislation had the added benefit of helping both parties.

"Democrats obviously wanted to deal with the scandal as quickly, as rapidly as possible to how that they've done something and Republicans wanted to pass a bill that had Republican ideology embedded within it - the idea that veterans can seek private care," he said.

Lichtman noted that veterans' issues have a long history of bipartisan cooperation between Democrats and Republicans. When Congress was repealing parts of President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal agenda after World War II, one of the only programs passed that expanded government aid was the G.I. Bill of Rights.

The broad agreement over the urgency and mechanics of a VA fix is reflected in both the vote totals of the two bills.

The House bill passed with an overwhelming 426-0 vote; the Senate bill was approved by a vote of 93-3.

The Senate and House are already talking to one another about merging the two pieces of legislation, with a goal of having something on the president's desk before July 4, aides told CBS News.

  • Rebecca Kaplan

    Rebecca Kaplan is a political reporter for