By Susan Cornwell and David Lawder
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. lawmakers engaged in rare bipartisan talks on Wednesday about legislation to address delays in the delivery of health care for military veterans.
The discussions sparked optimism that Republicans and Democrats can quickly strike a deal for a bill that would ensure immediate care for veterans and give the Obama administration greater authority to fire employees at the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Aides to Senate Democrats said a vote on a compromise measure could come as early as Thursday.
Independent Senator Bernie Sanders, who chairs the chamber's Veterans Affairs Committee, met with Republican Senator John McCain and Representative Jeff Miller to try to work out differences between competing proposals to fix widespread problems in the VA's health care system.
Veterans groups had expressed concern that Sanders's ambitions for a comprehensive package of VA reforms would get bogged down in election-year partisan politics, but the groups were encouraged by the lawmakers' shift in focus toward smaller, targeted bills.
"They're going to be forced to start to work together. It's certainly a very positive step," said Louis Celli, legislative director for the American Legion.
The flurry of activity comes less than a week after VA Secretary Eric Shinseki resigned amid the scandal over widespread schemes to mask the care delays and protect staff bonus awards and salary increases.
In Phoenix, where cover-up schemes first surfaced, doctors said that 40 veterans had died while waiting for care.
Acting VA secretary Sloan Gibson will visit Phoenix VA facilities on Thursday and told veterans groups that officials have now reached out to 1,700 veterans waiting for care appointments, the VA said.
More details of problems elsewhere surfaced on Wednesday as Kansas Senator Pat Roberts released a VA document showing 108 veterans faced care delays at some facilities in Kansas, Missouri, Indiana and Illinois.
House Speaker John Boehner sought to keep the pressure on President Barack Obama for VA changes, asking him in a letter to urge Senate Democrats to pass Republican reform bills.
The White House is considering Toby Cosgrove, head of the prestigious Cleveland Clinic, as a possible candidate to run the VA, according to a person familiar with the matter.
Miller, who chairs the House Veterans Affairs Committee, said he believes that Sanders is open to moving some VA reforms more quickly than others.
"The hope is that some type of a compromise can be reached that can pass the Senate and quickly pass the House," he told reporters after their meeting.
But key differences remain. A House-passed measure sponsored by Miller provides the VA secretary authority to fire employees or demote them at will for poor performance, while Sanders wants to maintain some employment safeguards.
A plan from Arizona's McCain would give veterans a new "choice card" option that would allow them to seek private care, while Sanders wants to keep VA care in-house as much as possible. Some lawmakers also want a provision authorizing leases to open 27 delayed VA outpatient clinics.
(Additional reporting by Emily Stephenson; Writing by David Lawder; Editing by Caren Bohan and Ken Wills)