An innovative proposal to replace the aging Veterans Administration hospital in Omaha seemed on the verge of easy approval in Congress. Now, an unrelated dispute in the Senate threatens it.
A public-private partnership would pay for a $136 million ambulatory care facility to replace the VA hospital in Omaha.
Yet, efforts to extend medical and pension benefits for retired coal miners has blocked passage of a number of bills, including the Omaha VA bill.
“It’s very frustrating with the Omaha VA bill. This is obviously a priority that we’ve been trying to get done,” U.S. Sen. Deb Fischer tells Nebraska reporters during a conference call.
The House approved the measure and sent it to the Senate as a unanimous consent bill, which normally would prepare it for easy passage in the Senate.
A move, largely driven by West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin III, blocked all unanimous consent bills. Manchin wants to force the Senate to extend medical and pension benefits to retired coal miners beyond the agreed-upon deadline of April 28th and has expressed willingness to shut down the federal government over the dispute.
The tactic could spell doom for all of the unanimous consent bills, including the VA project in Omaha.
Fischer says time is running out on this Congress, making it unlikely the bill will pass.
“Well, it’s my understanding that it’s going to be difficult to get it done now, because of action by a handful of Democrats,” according to Fischer.
The bill, sponsored in the House by Congressman Brad Ashford, proposes to create a model project in Omaha that would leverage federal funds with private donations to speed up construction of stalled VA projects. An effort to secure federal funding for a $560 million replacement of the VA hospital in Omaha has been placed on hold for years as the VA struggles with cost overruns elsewhere. The scaled-back ambulatory care facility has been touted as a reasonable replacement for a project that simply has never gotten off the ground.
If the bill fails to pass this session, it would be resurrect after the new Congress convenes next year.