UPDATE: Senate Democrats failed to achieve cloture and thus prevent a filibuster on the legislation. Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) led the opposition to the bill, arguing that the nation’s debt overrode its obligations to help veterans get jobs, and only 5 Republicans voted to proceed with the debate, leaving Democrats two votes short of the 60 required to block a threatened Republican filibuster.
Veterans groups and Democrats are urging Republican senators to put political bickering aside and stop blocking a bill which would help offset high unemployment rates among veterans.
Senators were due to vote on Wednesday on the bill which would cost $1bn over five years to help veterans find employment in public work projects and as police officers and firefighters. It gives priority to the newest generation of veterans, post-9/11, whose employment prospects are almost three percentage points below the national average.
Minutes before the vote, Patty Murray, the Democratic senator who introduced the bill, gave an impassioned speech from the floor, asking for unity to pass the bill which she said “should not be killed by procedural games”.
She said “I urge my colleagues to join with us in waiving this point of order. To join with us in telling our veterans that we are not done investing in their care and benefits – not by a long shot.”
She said that a vote for the point of order proposed by the Republicans sent a message to veterans telling them: “We have spent enough on our veterans.” It would have a long-lasting impact, she said, not only to kill their ability to pass the bill but would also affect other veteran bills to improve mental health care access and to allow those who had lost the ability to have children access to fertility services.
She added: “Join with us in moving forward with a bill that is paid for, that won’t add to our deficit, and that shouldn’t be killed by procedural games.Join with us in putting veterans above political obstruction, and back to work.”
The vote, postponed from last week because of Republican manoeuvres, is the latest in a series of measures to delay the bill, as members of the House prepare to leave Washington to campaign on their re-election.
Such political battles over legislation are not unusual within the current, polarised Congress. The 112th Congress is on course to break records for the least productive body on a generation, passing only 173 laws, below the 906 enacted in what President Harry Truman referred to as the “Do Nothing” Congress in 1947-8 according to the New York Times.
But supporters of the veterans bill say the delays in a measure which has bipartisan support, which has been widely rewritten to include Republican amendments and which would benefit those who have risked their lives for the nation, mark a new low for those who have sought to delay it.
Democrats and veterans’ groups say the bill’s costs are fully offset and have accused some Republicans of playing partisan politics at the expense of helping military personnel who struggle to regain employment when they return from deployment.
Ramsay Sulayman, of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said he was saddened to see “a very small group of people that are standing for principle to block the bill from even coming to a vote” on an issue which he said had seen a strong spirit of bipartisan support.
“That’s what we object to” said Sulayman. “If people say ‘We don’t like the bill’ and stand up and get up and vote and go on the record … that is different. It’s sad to see a few people holding a bill to hostage.”
Sulayman, a marine corp veteran and reservist, said it appeals to a “vast majority of the Senate who would want to get it on the floor”.
“Veterans employment was 10.9% in August. It is bad for everyone but there continues to be a disparity for veterans.”
The jobs bill is based on a proposal in President Barack Obama’s state of the union address in January.
Matt McAlvanah, a spokesman for Murray, said: “Patty Murray’s position is that, with unemployment of young veterans close to 20% and veterans suicide continuing to be epidemic, we cannot put a price on the amount of care we’re working to provide veterans.”
The Democrat-sponsored bill has already been extensively rewritten to include amendments by Republicans and has bipartisan support. Eight of the 12 provisions in the bill were Republican originated ideas.
Democrats need 60 votes to waive the budget point of order and allow the bill to progress.
There are 51 Democrats and two independents likely to vote in its favour. Democrats have also pinned their hopes on a number of Republicans who are strong supporters of veteran issues, including senators Scott Brown, who serves on the US Senate committee on veterans’ affairs, and Dean Heller of Nevada, who has introduced two bills to help veterans.
Harry Reid, the majority leader of the Senate, said the bill had met “one Republican stall tactic after another”, in a post to his Twitter account last week. He said the delaying tactics marked a “new low” for Republicans.
Jeff Sessions, the Senate budget committee ranking member, said he objected to the bill on the grounds it would increase the veterans affairs department budget and would blow though the spending cap lawmakers agreed last year.
Democrats argue the bills costs are already covered by plans to collect more than half a billion in unpaid taxes over the next five years, according to the Washington Examiner.
The bill was held up in the Senate last week after filibustering by Rand Paul, the Republican senator from Kentucky, to gain support for a Pakistani doctor who helped locate Osama Bin Laden.
Paul has promised to block Senate action until the doctor, Shakil Afridi, is released from jail. The Pakistani government has said it will not release him. Paul has also called on the Obama administration to cut foreign aid to Pakistan until Afridi is released.