WASHINGTON -- The Senate seemed ready Tuesday to vote preliminary approval of a sprawling Democratic bill expanding health, education and other benefits for veterans. But the election-year measure faced conservative opposition and an uncertain fate as Republicans try to make it smaller and find ways to pay for it.
The legislation, which sponsor Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., says would cost $21 billion over the coming decade, could confront GOP lawmakers with an uncomfortable campaign-season test over curbing spending for the nation's 22 million veterans and their families. Most veterans groups support the legislation, and the voting bloc they represent is a potent one that both parties usually try to avoid offending.
"There's a lot of need in the veterans community," said Sanders, who chairs the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee.
The Senate was expected to vote Tuesday to begin debating the legislation. Republicans seemed prepared to provide enough support for the measure to win the 60 votes needed to proceed.
After that, the path is uncertain for a bill some Republicans consider a Democratic campaign season ploy designed to force GOP lawmakers to oppose helping veterans.
"It's all about the elections," said Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina, top Republican on the veterans panel.
Republicans were demanding a chance to offer amendments -- particularly a GOP substitute Burr said was less costly and paid for with savings culled from Department of Veterans Affairs programs.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has blocked such votes on some bills, concerned that GOP senators would use them to embarrass Democrats on politically divisive issues like rolling back President Barack Obama's health care overhaul.
The conservative group Heritage Action urged senators to oppose Sanders' bill, saying its failure to revamp the VA results in "harming both veterans truly in need of assistance and taxpayers in the process."
The House has approved some of the benefit improvements in Sanders' bill, but Republicans who run that chamber say they oppose parts of the Senate bill and want better ways of financing it.
Sanders' bill would be paid for mostly with money left unspent from the end of U.S. fighting in Iraq and the phase-out of American forces in Afghanistan. Republicans consider that phony savings since those wars were already winding down and there were no real plans to spend that money on fighting.
Sanders' bill would let many uninsured veterans without service-connected injuries get coverage from the VA health care system.
The Democratic bill would also make it easier for veterans to qualify for in-state tuition at public universities. Jobless programs would be extended and states would be pressured to make it easier for veterans to get truck driver's and other licenses.
The measure would provide fertility treatment and coverage of adoption costs for veterans whose infertility sprang from service-related injuries. It would also expand VA counseling and treatment for sexual assault victims and increase the agency's chiropractic care, dentistry coverage and alternative medicine, such as using yoga to treat stress.
A two-year program would pay for fitness center memberships for overweight veterans who live more than 15 minutes from a VA fitness facility.
The bill also erased a 1 percent cut in annual inflation increases for veterans who retire early from the military that Congress enacted late last year. Legislation signed this month by Obama ended that cut for most early retirees, so Sanders now wants to end it for those who joined the military beginning this year.