House Oks cash for veterans

By Stephen Dinan
Published July 1, 2005

Democrats celebrated a rare Capitol Hill victory on military affairs yesterday, crowing over having forced House

Republicans to rush to pass an emergency spending bill for a $1 billion shortfall in veterans health care coverage.

"We said a year ago, and five months ago, and two months ago this budget was going to provide a shortfall for funding," said Rep. Chet Edwards, Texas Democrat, who led his party's efforts on the issue.

And House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, who on Wednesday promised to make the issue "too hot" for Republicans to ignore, said Republicans had to be forced to support veterans.

"Time after time, Democrats have put forward proposals to increase funding for our veterans," she said. "And time after time, Republicans have voted them down. We have had straight party-line votes."

After first saying the shortfall could be handled by shifting funds, the Bush administration yesterday sent up an emergency spending request for $975 million. The House passed the bill 419-0 last night, with 227 Republicans, 191 Democrats and one independent making up the unanimous vote.

Asked what changed, Rep. James P. Moran, Virginia Democrat, was blunt: "Politics."

He said Republicans simply became scared.

"Members were coming up to their leadership and saying, 'What are you doing to us? We've got July 4 coming up, and we're going to go home and say to the veterans, "We love you, but sorry" '?" Mr. Moran said.

The funding still faces a fight for final passage. Senators voted unanimously to add $1.5 billion for veterans health care to another spending bill earlier this week, and yesterday called on the House to pass a bill at that level. House Democrats tried but failed on a procedural vote to match the Senate's level of funding.

The Bush administration defended the new request as the best estimate of what is needed in fiscal year 2005, which runs through September.

Office of Management and Budget director Joshua B. Bolten said initial estimates had been based on a 2.3 percent estimate increase in 2005, while the actual increase appears to be 5.2 percent.

The spending request was a complete switch. On Tuesday, administration officials and House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, Texas Republican, said the problem could be taken care of by shifting funds and delaying capital projects.

Yesterday, Mr. DeLay said they have since realized that was flawed.

"Looking into it and how to solve the problem, it was obvious to us that just slipping around monies creates a bigger price tag for '06, and we're trying to stay within the budget for '06," he said.

He also said Republicans handled the situation responsibly.

"We've been notified of this issue, a week or so ago, have been looking at it, asking the proper questions, holding the proper hearings and coming up with the proper solutions," he said. "If the Democrats had their way, they'd just run out there and throw $1.5 billion at it without knowing what they were doing."

Democrats said the legislative coup was the result of years of work.

Mrs. Pelosi has a working group that handles veterans affairs and a staffer dedicated to veterans issues. Democratic staffers said they knew months ago about the shortfall, based on their conversations both with national veterans groups and with veterans at the local level.

That left them poised to capitalize when the Department of Veterans Affairs announced it had discovered the shortfall in its midyear review.

"They worked very closely with us," said Joseph A. Violante, national legislative director for Disabled American Veterans. "They've seen from the beginning, like we've seen, that the appropriations bill that passed in November 2004 was totally insufficient for VA's purposes. They've been attuned to information coming out across the country on a local level on shortfalls from VA facilities."

Democrats forced a fight on veterans health care money last year, as well, with the support of Rep. Christopher H. Smith, the New Jersey Republican who was Veterans' Affairs Committee chairman at the time. Mr. Smith subsequently was ousted as chairman.

Veterans voted in 2004 for Mr. Bush over Democratic nominee Sen. John Kerry, a decorated Vietnam combat veteran, 58 percent to 41 percent, according to one exit poll. And earlier this month, the Senate's No. 2 Democrat, Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, angered veterans groups by comparing interrogation tactics at U.S. Naval Base Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to the Soviet and Nazi regimes.

But Mr. Violante said Republicans probably will end up losing some steam among veterans.

"When these veterans are unable to access health care in a timely fashion, and we're getting back to a point in time where waiting lists are growing for health care, there are huge backlogs in the claims area for benefits, it has to hurt the party in power," he said.

The issue prompted a broader political fight, with Rep. David R. Obey, Wisconsin Democrat, offering what he called a "truth serum" amendment to a spending bill yesterday that would have linked funding for administration officials to whether they were truthful to Congress.

"The administration was lying through its teeth on what the needs were on the VA," Mr. Obey said. He said the same thing happened when the administration withheld its estimates of the Medicare prescription-drug bill's costs.

But Mr. DeLay said the amendment was all about politics.

"Frankly, I support the words in this amendment, but I reject the politics that brings it here," he said. The amendment lost a 215-208 vote.