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The Week In Politics: Progress On Upgrading VA Health System


Congress is heading into its last week before taking a summer recess. For a change, lawmakers are not racing the clock to overt a fiscal calamity. Still, the standoff between the two parties has all but stopped the process of governing.


But not completely. Over the weekend a deal was announced between the House and Senate to upgrade the troubled health care system under the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Joining us to discuss the state of play in the capital is NPR senior Washington correspondent Ron Elving. Good morning, Ron.

RON ELVING, BYLINE: Good to see you both.

MONTAGNE: So what do we know about this surprise agreement between the House and the Senate on the VA reform bill?

ELVING: Linda, at this point it looks like mostly an agreement to agree, rather than a done deal. We don't have the details. The two people who negotiated this - Jeff Miller from the House, Bernie Sanders from the Senate - are going to have a news conference later on today and share some of those with us. The big question has been about money. So you've got a $10 bill and a $25 billion bill to improve access to the VA and improve care, and they haven't told us how they're going to close that gap, or even if they're going to close that gap, and whether or not they're going to have what we call Pay Fors - things that would be cut elsewhere in the budget to pay for it. Not clear if they're even going to be any or whether this might wind up on the budget deficit. But expect them to say that veterans are - who live far from a facility, or who have been experiencing extraordinarily long wait times - will be allowed to visit private doctors and pass that bill along to the government.

WERTHEIMER: Well, now, what about some of the other big ticket items that Congress had hoped to address before they go home for their summer vacation at the end of the week?

ELVING: One major item is the Highway Trust Fund. It's a hardy perennial. Hereto, a compromise appears to have broken out in the eleventh hour. The Senate is expected to accept a stopgap measure from the house that would fund the highways and bridges that need to be completed through May of next year. Now, that's not what the Democrats wanted, or what the White House wanted because they wanted a permanent fix to the running-on-empty Highway Trust Fund, but that would probably require raising the gas tax or coming up with some other kind of tax, and that is not a starter in the House.

WERTHEIMER: Another huge challenge facing the federal government is the build-up on the border, where thousands of children have been arriving from Central America.

ELVING: Yes, and Congress has yet to agree to the president's request. He wanted about $4 billion; the Senate said they'd give him about maybe 70 cents on the dollar for that. House is talking about a little more than a quarter on the dollar. The House also wants to amend that 2008 law that's been something of a magnet to some of these families that have sent their children North. And that would perhaps facilitate the rapid processing and return to home countries of these children. So the Democrats are not so sure they want that to happen, but the bill has all kinds of problems in the Senate as well, so they could finish this this week. They could still get a breakthrough. It's also possible it could go on into the fall.

WERTHEIMER: Now, many people in the business world have been hoping Congress would reauthorize the Export-Import Bank this summer. That's the bank which helps market U.S. goods around the world, helps U.S. businesses compete with rivals in other countries. Where does that stand?

ELVING: Well, despite millions of dollars spent in lobbying, the business community has not closed the sale on this this time. There are populists on the right as well as on the left who say that the government just shouldn't be in the business of picking winners and losers and helping some companies, especially rather large companies like Boeing and their business rivalries around the world. And yet, a lot of Republicans insist that this needs to be done, and a lot of base voters in that same party say, no.

WERTHEIMER: Anything else before they go out the door?

ELVING: Well, we can't guarantee they're going to finish any of the bills that we've mentioned actually, but it does appear certain the House will finish a bill authorizing speaker John Boehner in his lawsuit against President Obama. They're suing the president because he has been making changes to bills after they were passed and because he has done some things as he says, using his telephone and his pen.

WERTHEIMER: NPR's senior Washington correspondent Ron Elving. Ron, thank you.

ELVING: Thank you both. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for NPR.org.
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