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Senate Approves VA Reform, Highway Funding Bills Before August Recess

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Lawmakers are leaving town for the August recess with a lot still on their plates, but the Senate did manage to pass legislation to reform the Veterans Affairs Department and provide continued highway funding on Thursday.

The Senate voted 91 to 3 in favor of compromise legislation to reform the scandal-plagued Veterans Affairs Department.

Only Republican Sens. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., Tom Coburn, R-Okla., and Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., voted against the VA bill, because the funding provided by the bill was not completely offset by spending cuts.

The legislation includes more than $16 billion to improve veterans' access to medical services in the wake of the recent scandal over excessive wait times.

While approximately $10 billion will go toward a new system allowing veterans who can't get a VA appointment to receive private care, another $6 billion will be dedicated to hiring more staff.

The bill, crafted by Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., also authorizes leases for twenty-seven new VA facilities and gives the Veterans Affairs Secretary new authority to fire senior managers and officials responsible for poor performance at VA facilities.

"This week the Senate has taken strong action to get the Veterans Affairs Administration back on track," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., noting that the Senate also confirmed Robert McDonald as the new VA Secretary.

He added, "More still needs to be done to keep our veterans from falling through the cracks. I will continue to work to ensure that veterans in Nevada, and throughout the country, receive the care they deserve."

The Senate also voted 81 to 13 to approve a new highway funding bill, with thirty Republicans joining with most Democrats to approve the legislation.

The bill injects a cash infusion of nearly $11 billion into the Highway Trust Fund, providing funding for the nation's infrastructure projects through May.

While the Senate previously modified a House bill to extend funding only through December, the House stripped out the changes and sent the bill back to the upper chamber.

Supporters of the shorter extension argued that it would compel lawmakers to work on a longer-term solution after the November elections.

Without the bill to replenish the Highway Trust Fund, states would have been forced to freeze or cancel hundreds of highway and bridge projects.

The VA reform and highway funding bills will now head to President Barack Obama's desk for his signature.

In addition to those two bills, the Senate also approved legislation to allocate an additional $225 million in emergency funding to Israel for production of Iron Dome missile defense components.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ken., said the bill, which was approved by unanimous consent, will allow Israel to maintain adequate stockpiles and defend its population from missile attacks launched by Hamas.

Meanwhile, the Senate was unable to approve legislation to provide funding to address the ongoing crisis along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Democrats had been pushing legislation to provide $2.7 billion in emergency border funding, but the bill fell ten votes short of the 60 needed to clear a procedural hurdle.

Reid said he was deeply disappointed by Senate Republicans' decision to block the Emergency Supplemental Funding legislation.

"Once again, Republicans have demonstrated that they are more interested in playing partisan politics and holding innocent children ransom than doing what is right for our country," Reid said.

He added, "This legislation would have provided necessary resources to address the urgent humanitarian crisis created by the thousands of children fleeing the terrible violence in Central America."

House Republican leaders were forced to pull their border bill from the floor on Thursday but are reportedly trying to craft a bill that will appease their more conservative colleagues. The House may vote on the revised bill later on Friday.

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