As Congress returns from its summer recess, senators should
brace themselves for flak from veterans groups' irate over 2004
funding for veterans' health care. Senators have a chance to get
their House counterparts out of a jam, or to fall right in with
Back in April, in the budget resolution that outlines spending
levels, the Senate persuaded the House to agree to add a whopping
$1.8 billion to the president's request for the perennially
strapped Veterans Affairs health system. The amount would have
brought the VA budget to the level recommended by leading
veterans' groups in their “Veterans' Independent Budget” analysis.
But the budget resolution paid for this increase with a promise to
cut other unspecified domestic programs later.
“There was no real, solid money behind it,” said John Scofield,
spokesman for the House Appropriations Committee. “Unlike the
budget resolution, we have to deal with reality.” Even Rep. Robert
Simmons, R-Conn., chairman of the Veterans' Affairs Subcommittee
on Health, said that appropriators “were essentially required to
fund 10 pounds of program in a 5-pound bag.” So the appropriations
bill to set actual spending levels simply left out the extra $1.8
billion. Over the bitter opposition of Simmons and others, the
House stuck with President Bush's requested sum.
But the House left out something else the president had asked
for: authority to double co-payments and impose a $250 annual fee
on veterans earning more than $24,000 a year. These measures would
have raised revenues and reduced costs, chiefly by discouraging an
estimated 1.2 million veterans from seeking VA care. By omitting
these unpopular provisions, administration officials say, the
House has left them $800 million in the hole.
In July, Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman Chris Smith,
R-N.J., tried to raise a bipartisan revolt against his own party's
appropriations bill to get more money for veterans' health. But
his uprising failed. House GOP leaders, backing the president,
introduced a procedural measure (a rule) that would have
effectively barred any amendments designed to add back the $1.8
billion. Democrats opposed the procedural measure. All but six
Republicans voted for it, even those who wanted more VA money,
because the vote came down to a leadership test of party loyalty.
(Smith himself did not cast a vote on the rule; Simmons voted
against it.) Then when the full appropriations bill came up, 59
Republicans, including 21 of 33 freshmen, voted against it to
register their disapproval of the VA shortfall. All but 50
Democrats supported the bill, seeing opposition as moot at that
point, because the rule prevented adding more money. With
veterans' advocates divided, both the rule and the bill passed the
So now everyone is unhappy. The administration wants its fees
and co-pays back. Republican House members with lots of veterans
in their districts feel that their leadership hyped up
expectations only to dash them, leaving members to face the
backlash at home. Veterans' groups, most of which conveniently
hold their national conventions in August, have mobilized their
members to storm the Hill.
And now the whole mess is in the Senate's hands. “The House
dumped this dead bird in our laps,” said one Senate staffer.
“We're sure as hell going to do better.”
But by how much? The top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations'
subcommittee for veterans, Maryland's Barbara Mikulski, has
publicly pledged to restore the full $1.8 billion. However, it's
ultimately up to Republican Chairman Christopher “Kit” Bond of
Missouri to make the math work out, and money is tight. There are
only two practical options. Either the subcommittee must cut the
grab bag of other popular programs in its jurisdiction—including
NASA, the National Science Foundation, and housing programs for
the poor. Or, 60 senators must vote to set aside budgeting rules
and get the money by increasing an already record
deficit—something Republican leaders are struggling to prevent.
Even splitting the difference will be hard. Just making up for
those unpopular fees and co-pays that no one wants to let the VA
levy would require $800 million on top of the president's request.
A $900 million compromise in the Senate was rumored, said Rep.
Rick Renzi, R-Ariz., one of the House members who rebelled against
the appropriations bill, but “now I'm hearing that they may be at
our number”—no increase over the president's request—“which is
The politics of veterans' needs will put real pressure on the
Senate to beat the House's number, and on the House to compromise.
The VA bill, however, could easily get lost in what is becoming an
annual financial train wreck, with VA funding tucked into a
massive omnibus spending billed passed in a hasty shamble long
after the budget deadline of October 1.
If that's the outcome, veterans' groups have ire enough for
both Republicans and Democrats. Said Ron Conley, outgoing national
commander of the nearly 3 million-member American Legion, “I'm
angry at both of 'em.” The Senate's task is to try to defuse that