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U.S. Senate Republicans block veterans' health bill on budget worry

By Richard Cowan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Senate Republicans blocked legislation on Thursday that would have expanded federal healthcare and education programs for veterans, saying the $24 billion bill would bust the budget.

Even though the legislation cleared a procedural vote on Tuesday by a 99-0 vote, the measure quickly got bogged down in partisan fighting.

Supporters said the measure would have brought the most significant changes in decades to U.S. veterans' programs. For example, it called for 27 new medical facilities to help a healthcare system that is strained by veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

With Democrats pressing for passage this week, Senate Republicans, backed by their leader, Mitch McConnell, attempted to attach controversial legislation calling for possible new sanctions on Iran that President Barack Obama opposes.

"The issue of Iran sanctions ... has nothing to do with the needs of veterans," complained Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman Bernard Sanders of Vermont, the main sponsor of the bill.

Republicans also raised budget concerns, forcing another key procedural vote that ended up killing the bill. By a vote of 56-41, the Senate failed to waive budget rules that would have allowed the bill to proceed. Sixty votes were needed and 41 of the chamber's 45 Republicans voted against the waiver.

Referring to recent budget deals that aim to bring down federal deficits, Republican Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama said: "This bill would spend more than we agreed to spend. The ink is hardly dry and here we have another bill to raise that spending again."

The legislation had the backing of most veterans' organizations, but was doomed by deep disagreements between Democrats and Republicans that have made this Congress one of the least productive in decades.

Sanders, an independent who caucuses with Democrats, had hoped senators would, "rise above the day-to-day rancor and the party politics that we see on this floor almost every single day," and support a law affecting 22 million veterans, including more than 2 million who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

With Thursday's vote, Congress sent another disjointed message to the nation's veterans.

In December, Congress passed a two-year budget deal that included a reduction in veterans' pension benefits. Weeks later, Congress did an about-face and repealed many of the cuts.

And early this week, with the initial 99-0 procedural vote on Sanders' bill, the Senate appeared to be delivering a strong show of support for veterans, only to see the legislation die in the Senate with Thursday's vote.

(Reporting by Richard Cowan. Editing by Andre Grenon)

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