Politics

Bipartisan Breakout Gives Vulnerable Senators Wins Ahead of Recess

VA and banking bills headline measures heading to President Donald Trump

Sen. Jon Tester is the ranking Democrat on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Some of the Senate’s most vulnerable incumbents will be scoring big legislative victories just in time for the Memorial Day parades.

The most timely outbreak of bipartisanship will come with passage, expected Wednesday afternoon, of a bill designed to improve health care access and options for veterans, known as the VA MISSION Act.

Sen. Dean Heller, a Nevada Republican facing perhaps the most difficult electoral challenge in 2018, said he expected to hear plenty about veterans health care over the weekend.

“It will be discussed all day Monday. All day Monday, I’ll have a number of veterans coming up to me,” Heller said, adding it goes well beyond that. “Regardless of where I am. If I’m in Ely, Elko or anywhere else in the state of Nevada, I assure you veterans are coming up to me.”

Heller said that during an Armed Forces Day parade in Hawthorne, Nevada, about nine out of every 10 comments shouted in his direction were from veterans about dealing with the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Sen. Jon Tester, the Montana Democrat who serves as ranking member on the Veterans’ Affairs Committee, worked alongside Chairman Johnny Isakson of Georgia to help craft the legislation with their House counterparts.

“This bill, I believe the reason it’s got legs is because of Johnny and I. We worked together. It was supposed to be out Veterans Day,” Tester said.

Tester has faced persistent criticism from President Donald Trump over his role in derailing Ronny Jackson, who was the official presidential physician at the time of his surprise nomination to lead the VA. Jackson withdrew his nomination after questions surfaced about his official conduct and qualifications. 

The Montana Democrat said the legislation was probably delayed further by the issues that plagued Jackson, but the Senate committee leaders kept working to fashion a bill that would win the support of both the Trump administration and the veterans service organizations, which have been opposed to ideas that would privatize veterans health care.

The Senate voted, 91-4, to limit debate on the VA benefits overhaul bill Tuesday, the same say the House called up and cleared for Trump’s signature a Senate-crafted rollback of parts of the 2010 Dodd-Frank financial regulatory overhaul.

The overwhelmingly bipartisan nature of the Senate vote to move the process along did not prevent at least one Republican from making an attempt to score political points.

Indiana Democratic Sen. Joe Donnelly was among the gaggle of senators supporting the measure, but Mike Braun, the GOP nominee who is seeking to unseat Donnelly, still tried to criticize him over it hours later.

“In the Senate, I would proudly support the MISSION Act. That’s why it troubles me that Senator Donnelly has been silent on the issue thus far,” Braun said in a statement. “Today, I’m calling on him to do the right thing and get behind this legislation.”

In effect, Donnelly already had.

Meanwhile, Donnelly, Tester and Sen. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota were among the Democratic architects of the banking overhaul bill led by Idaho Republican Sen. Michael D. Crapo and Virginia Democratic Sen. Mark Warner.

“The banking bill,” Tester said. “We’ve been working on that bill for four or five years in a bipartisan way communicating with one another, and it just happened to work out where Crapo was the chair.”

Heitkamp most directly summed up the reason that rural state Democrats worked with Republicans on the measure, even in the face of opposition from more liberal colleagues.

“Too often in Congress, gridlock and partisanship win the day. But I worked for years to negotiate and write this bill with a bipartisan group of senators so we could provide relief for the community banks and credit unions that serve farmers, small businesses, and families across rural America,” Heitkamp said in a statement after the House vote. “Reaching compromise doesn’t always come quickly, but with perseverance and by working together, we can get results for North Dakota — and that’s how I try to work every day in the U.S. Senate.”

In his own statement, Donnelly touted the bill as “an example of what we can achieve when we work together and break through gridlock.”

“Importantly, this package includes several new consumer protections related to student loan borrowers, free credit freezes, credit monitoring for servicemembers, and protections for veterans from VA billing delays and predatory mortgage lending,” he said. “I look forward to President Trump signing it into law.” 

Donnelly is the Senate Democrat most closely involved in another bipartisan venture that is on the way to the president’s desk, and it is one that Trump himself highlighted during the State of the Union at the end of January.

“Families in Indiana and across the country deserve the right to try and access potentially life-saving, clinically tested medical treatment to treat terminally ill loved ones before time runs out,” Donnelly said in a statement.

That “right to try” legislation would grant certain terminally ill patients the opportunity to use experimental pharmaceuticals provided by manufacturers without getting approval from the Food and Drug Administration. Wisconsin Republican Sen. Ron Johnson led the effort on the bill, pushing the House to call it up and pass it without amendment.

On a packed legislative day, the House on Tuesday voted, 250-169, to pass the legislation. 

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