Congress works on immigration, veterans’ issues before recess

By Zachary Toillion

As the August recess begins, members of Congress travel back to their home districts to meet with constituents and host town hall meetings, but not without first debating a series of bills designed to address the influx of unaccompanied minors crossing the southern border.

On July 8, President Obama requested Congress pass a $3.7 billion supplemental spending bill to help aid the humanitarian crisis on the southern border where an estimated 91,000 immigrants have been taken into custody for trying to illegally cross the Mexico–United States border in the last year. Of these 91,000 immigrants, over 52,000 were unaccompanied minors from Central American countries plagued by drug violence. Obama also stated that he preferred the House of Representatives pass the immigration reform bill that made its way through the Senate last year.

In the 2013 immigration reform bill, formally known as the Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Act, $30 billion was to be allocated to border security in an amendment co-sponsored by Tennessee’s Sen. Bob Corker. It was championed as a “border surge” that would crack down on illegal immigration and was critical in getting Republican support for the bipartisan bill that passed 68-32 with 14 Republican votes in the Senate.

After Obama called for the $3.7 billion supplemental, committees in both the House and Senate began to draft proposals to try and expedite the process. On July 27, Senate Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) unveiled a plan that would allocate $2.7 billion to border security. That proposal went on to pass the full Senate on a 63-33 vote. Sen. Corker voted in favor of the resolution while Sen. Alexander voted against it.

The House spending committee initially recommended a $1.5 billion border security proposal. Many within the more conservative wing of the House Republicans stood against the bill, and the House leadership settled on a $659 million package.

On July 31, the House of Representatives was set to vote on the $659 million package, but the bill was taken off the floor as rank-and-file Republicans made clear they would not support the bill in its current form. The abandoned attempt at a vote was the first major legislation shepherded through the House by the new leadership team of Majority Leader Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.), who started serving in their new posts the same day. As a result, Congress delayed the August recess by one day while the Senate adjourned, ensuring any new spending on border security will not happen until at least September.

On August 1, a new proposal allocating $694 million to border security passed the House 223-189 on a largely party-line vote. One of the few Republican votes against the measure was from Tennessee Rep. Stephen Fincher.

When Congress reconvenes in September, the House’s border security bill will have to be reconciled with the $2.7 billion Senate version and then voted on by both chambers. In the mean time, Obama has vowed to take executive action stating, “I’m going to have to go it alone, we’ve run out of money.”

While the House and Senate were at loggerheads over the border and presidential litigation, significant progress was made on other issues. The House was far more receptive to a $17 billion emergency funding bill for the Dept. of Veteran’s Affairs.

The VA has come under fire after evidence was found that executives were falsifying information about treatment and veterans faced long wait times before seeing doctors, and in some incidents died as a result of not getting treatment. This lead to the resignation of Sec. of Veteran’s Affairs Eric Shinsecki on May 30.

The bill allocates $10 billion into a plan where veterans can seek access from private health care providers and allocates an additional $5 billion into hiring new staff at VA hospitals—particularly mental health professionals, social workers, doctors and nurses. The remaining $2 billion allocates funding to VA hospitals throughout the country.

The bill also sets up an independent assessment mechanism of VA hospitals and clinics. and gives the Sec. of Veterans Affairs the ability to fire executives while only allowing them seven days to appeal the decision.

The bill was the product of weeks of negotiations between Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who chairs the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, and Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) who chairs the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs. The bill easily passed both the House (420-5) and Senate (91-3).

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