Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, expected last week that every committee member, Democrat and Republican, would vote for the VA Care in the Community Act, his comprehensive plan developed over months to reform the flawed Veterans Choice program.
Roe said he was surprised and disappointed when all nine Democrats at the bill's markup hearing opposed the legislation they helped to shape and for which they were original co-sponsors.
In a phone interview, Roe blamed the split vote on "pure, blatant, raw politics based on this tax bill."
The tax bill in dispute is the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act backed solely by Republicans. Democrats and many independent analysts contend it overwhelmingly favors corporations and the wealthy over middle-class taxpayers. The Congressional Budget Office forecasts it will drive up the nation's debt by $1.5 trillion in a decade.
Democrats told Roe they could not in principle vote for his Choice reform bill, given uncertain funding support ahead if many more veterans need outside care, and on the same day House Republicans alone approved a mammoth tax relief bill.
During markup of Roe's bill, various amendments were accepted or rejected. But Democrats and Republicans also traded insults and challenged motives in a committee room where compliments over bipartisanship are common.
"I am troubled that we are going to put Choice funding at risk, again, on the very day that some people on this committee will be voting to drive up deficits and to give a tax break to the wealthiest Americans," said Rep. Ann Kuster, D-N.H.
What particularly upset Democrats, in the shadow of a massive tax relief bill, was an amendment Roe planned to offer at markup that would cap growth of authorized funding for VA-paid community health care at 3 percent annually for four straight years, starting in fiscal 2019.
Roe drafted his cap language after cost estimates for his Choice bill came in at roughly $39 billion over five years, more than double what Roe expected. It alarmed Republicans negotiating the easing of spending caps on other departments, including for Defense, to avoid a government shutdown. -
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