A unanimous House agreed late yesterday to immediately provide nearly $1 billion for veterans health care in a swift answer to President Bush's call for lawmakers to plug a politically troubling shortfall.
House members approved by 419 to 0 a measure to close a funding gap that was disclosed last week to the surprise of lawmakers. They were told that unexpected health care demands had eaten a $1 billion hole in the fiscal 2005 budget of the Department of Veterans Affairs.
The GOP's speedy response did not soften Democratic criticism that Republicans had ignored the escalating need until it turned into an emergency. "This shortfall is the direct result of the failed budget policies and misplaced priorities of the Bush administration and the Republican Congress," said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). "Republicans here have either been in denial about the plight of our veterans or it simply hasn't been a priority for them."
Republicans responded that the GOP moved within one day to give the VA every penny it requested and that veterans will see no gap in their health care benefits. Rep. James T. Walsh (R-N.Y.) said annual spending increases show the GOP's commitment to supporting veterans.
The House passed the $975 supplemental spending bill a day after the Senate voted unanimously to give the department an extra $1.5 billion to cover the health care shortfall, allowing the VA to carry unused funds into next year. Senators indicated that they want to stick to their bigger spending package.
"The Senate acted unanimously [Wednesday]," said Sen. Larry E. Craig (R-Idaho). "To do anything less than what we did . . . would be inadequate."
Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) said: "The House, instead of agreeing with us and putting the dollars to work where they are so needed, has decided to take a major step backwards."
The VA will not get any additional funds until the House and Senate reconcile their bills.