By Richard Cowan
WASHINGTON, Feb 25 (Reuters) - An expansion of healthcare and education programs for veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan cleared its first procedural hurdle on Tuesday, as Democrats in the U.S. Senate attempted to win passage of the legislation this week.
By a vote of 99-0, the Senate laid the groundwork for debating a bill that would create 27 new medical facilities in 18 states and Puerto Rico to help meet the growing needs of veterans of the long combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"This is the most comprehensive piece of veterans' legislation to be offered in decades and addresses many of the challenges facing service members, veterans and their families," said Senator Bernard Sanders of Vermont, the chief sponsor of the bill.
Despite the unanimous vote on this procedural move to open Senate debate, the fate of the legislation was uncertain. Some Republicans criticized provisions of the bill, including expanded health coverage for veterans who do not suffer from any war-related injuries.
Republicans also were trying to attach a controversial provision unrelated to veterans programs: possible new sanctions on Iran, which the Obama administration opposes as a potential threat to diplomatic efforts that are aimed at stopping that country's suspected nuclear weapons program.
Republican Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma said the Department of Veterans Affairs is unable to effectively run existing programs. "We're putting a bill to expand the responsibilities instead of holding them accountable to the responsibilities they have today," Coburn complained.
The Sanders bill, with a $24 billion price tag, comes after Congress recently repealed a pension benefit cut for veterans that Congress and President Barack Obama had signed off on as part of a broader bipartisan budget deal crafted in January.
The Senate debate also was unfolding as Obama prepares to unveil his 2015 budget blueprint, which will call for military spending cuts in the post-Iraq and Afghanistan war era and refocusing spending more on domestic programs.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat, said that with war spending diminishing, "It is only fair that we use a small portion of those savings to invest in our returning veterans."
Republicans, however, have long objected to Democrats' attempts to take war fund accounts and apply them to new domestic spending. Instead, Republicans have argued that savings from the draw-down of combat operations should help reduce budget deficits.
Besides healthcare improvements, the legislation would expand access to educational benefits for veterans and their survivors.
Veterans returning from the two wars, many of whom suffer from combat-related psychological problems or severe wounds from roadside explosive devices, have often had to deal with long waits before receiving care at federally run medical facilities.
Sanders' bill attempts to reduce those backlogs.
There are an estimated 2.6 million veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, according to the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. (Editing by Chizu Nomiyama)