Hostage Crisis: GOP Tries Slipping Iran Sanctions Into Veterans’ Bill

air force soldier

Election year politics are once again casting a shadow over the nation’s legislative process; on this occasion, hanging in the balance is a $21-billion, Democrat-sponsored bill aimed at expanding healthcare, and education programs for the estimated 2.6 million veterans of the long combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Those men and women are returning from the two wars, many of whom are still suffering from combat-related psychological problems or severe injuries from roadside explosions. Often, veterans face incredibly long wait times to receive medical care at government facilities, and the bill seeks to remedy that problem.

A unanimous Tuesday vote of 99 to 0 moved the veterans bill beyond a key procedural hurdle in the Senate. That legislation — which would create 27 new medical facilities in 18 states and Puerto Rico is now facing open debate on the floor of the upper house. Senator Bernard Sanders of Vermont, who chairs the Veterans’ Affairs Committee and was the chief sponsor of the bill, called the bill the “most comprehensive legislation for veterans to come before Congress in decades is strongly supported by virtually every veterans and military organization in the country.”

But what he and fellow Democrat Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada believe should be a bipartisan issue has drawn criticism from Republican lawmakers who opposed the extension of healthcare benefits to veterans who did not sustain war-related injuries. The party has also argued against the cost; GOP leaders are now looking for solutions to make the legislation smaller and to finance it differently. The Sanders’s bill would predominantly be paid for by money left unused from the concluded operation in Iraq and the winding down the military engagement in Afghanistan

While helping U.S. veterans is a popular issue among politicians of both parties, Republican lawmakers’ concern for the impact the benefit expansion would have on the United States budget deficit is by no means surprising. But the inclusion of an amendment would not only decrease the cost of the legislation, but also impose fresh sanctions on Iran if ongoing negotiations over scaling down its nuclear program fail. That addition has enraged many Democratic senators. “Please do not inject the Iran sanctions issue into a debate on how we can improve the lives of veterans and their families,” Sanders said in a Senate floor statement. In a press release issued Wednesday he quoted Commander Daniel M. Dellinger of the 2.4-million-strong American Legion as saying that, “Iran is a serious issue that Congress needs to address, but it cannot be tied to S. 1982, which is extremely important as our nation prepares to welcome millions of U.S. military servicemen and women home from war.”

Reid made similar comments. “Like our support for veterans, the Senate’s Iran sanctions policy has historically been solidly bipartisan,” he stated on the Senate floor. “The idea of Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon is so unthinkable that Democrats and Republicans have always worked together on this policy. Unfortunately, it seems Republicans are trying to erase that history and politicize an issue that has historically been above partisanship.” Furthermore, he said, “the Republicans are trying to mislead the American public by saying that a bipartisan majority supports moving forward with new sanctions right now. In fact, many Senators, including some who have cosponsored the new sanctions bill, believe we should not move forward with the bill at this time or on this important bill for veterans.”

Republicans in the Senate see the veteran benefits bill as a hostage of sorts. GOP lawmakers wish to see fresh sanctions imposed on Iran, but Reid has blocked floor consideration of any Iran legislation, and so the GOP strategy to pass sanction legislation is to attach it to measures widely supported by Democrats, like the Veterans bill. “There is no excuse for muzzling the Congress on an issue of this importance to our own national security,” Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said Wednesday on the Senate floor, regarding Reid’s moratorium on Iran.

Meanwhile, Reid called the Republicans strategy an effort to stall and “obstruct” the passage of the veteran benefit extension, which will also make it easier for veterans to qualify for in-state tuition at public universities and apply for truck driver’s and other licenses. It would also expand Veterans Affairs counseling and treatment for sexual assault victims and increase the agency’s chiropractic care, dentistry coverage, and alternative medicine, including yoga to treat stress.

There are also other issues beyond national security slowing down the passage of the bill: costs. Earlier this month, U.S. lawmakers, succumbing to election-year pressure, already decided to reverse a cut in pensions for working-age military retirees. President Barack Obama — who said he would veto any sanctions legislation — agreed to the reversal as part of a broader bipartisan budget deal negotiated in January. The pension cuts would have affected 750,000 military veterans. The fact that pension cuts have already been eliminated as a deficit reduction option has made Republicans concerned about the budgetary impact of the veterans’ bill.

While Democrats want to reapportion war fund accounts for domestic spending, Republicans would like to see the savings from the deescalation of combat operations be put toward drawing down the deficit. The debate also comes as the president prepares to reveal the budget blueprint for 2015, which is expected to show a increased focus on spending on domestic programs and lower military spending.

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