The Senate, after a series of angry partisan exchanges, unanimously approved yesterday $1.5 billion in emergency funds for the Department of Veterans Affairs' health care programs. The action is the first step in what now appears to become a total increase of at least $2.5 billion in fiscal 2005 and 2006.
Hours before the Senate's 96 to 0 vote, the last opponents in the House and Bush administration to boosted VA spending told reporters that they have abandoned their resistance.
House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Steve Buyer (R-Ind.) and Veterans Affairs Secretary Jim Nicholson, who had both argued that the department could get through this year without additional cash, held a joint news conference to announce "immediate action" to fill a fiscal 2005 shortfall of at least $1 billion, and another shortfall of at least $1.5 billion in the House-passed appropriation for VA health care in fiscal 2006.
Nicholson told lawmakers Tuesday that the administration had vastly underestimated the number of service personnel returning from Iraq and Afghanistan who would seek VA medical treatment. The estimates had been based on outdated assumptions from 2002, he said.
The developments yesterday marked the failure of the administration and GOP congressional leaders to force tough spending constraints on the department, which is backed by some of the most influential lobbies in the capital. With the 2006 midterm elections approaching and President Bush's favorability ratings at low levels, Republicans in the House and the Senate clearly had no stomach for risking the wrath of former service members in the cause of deficit reduction.
Virtually all veterans groups -- including the American Legion, the Disabled American Veterans and the Veterans of Foreign Wars -- have complained bitterly that the administration and the Republican leadership have abandoned a commitment to treat VA health care as an integral "cost of war." John Furgess, commander in chief of the VFW, denounced Bush's spending proposals for the department as "especially shameful during a time of war."
The Senate vote yesterday was on a bill sponsored by Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), who had opposed a past Democratic amendment to raise VA spending. He was given the honor of becoming lead sponsor because he faces one of the toughest reelection fights next year among incumbent Republicans.
Senate Democratic leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.), who is orchestrating the party's campaign efforts, refused to give Santorum a free ride, noting that on three previous occasions, "Senate Republicans, including the lead sponsor [Santorum] . . . voted no. No to additional funding for our veterans. No to giving them the quality health care they have earned. No to keeping our nation's commitments to those who have served."
Reid's comments infuriated Sen. Larry E. Craig (R-Idaho), chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, and Santorum, who denounced Reid for saying that Nicholson's "only qualification" as VA secretary was his tenure as chairman of the Republican National Committee. Santorum cited Nicholson's extensive military experience and his awards and medals.
Reid said he was "sorry" he had not acknowledged Nicholson's military service, but "I will not be lectured about civility by the junior senator from Pennsylvania who has repeatedly disrespected veterans. . . . Talk about crass politics, the junior senator from Pennsylvania can't run from his record."
Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), the leading sponsor of previous, unsuccessful efforts to increase the VA budget, sought to soothe tempers, telling colleagues: "I think what we can say as a body is that this Senate stands in full support of our soldiers. . . . That's a powerful message and one that I am very proud of."
The department had been planning to make up for the $1 billion shortfall in medical care money for 2005 by transferring just under $400 million from a special reserve fund and more than $600 million from a fund for maintenance and equipment purchases. Many lawmakers voiced concern over these planned transfers, contending that critical repairs would be postponed.
Nicholson is scheduled to testify this morning at a hearing of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, which is attempting to put a more precise dollar figure on the shortfalls for 2005 and 2006.
"Let's find the right numbers, let's get the budgeting process right," said Buyer, who wants the department to develop a process that produces "accurate budget forecasts and not just estimates."