The Senate sent President Bush a $1.5 billion budget increase for veterans' health care programs yesterday as it cleared the first spending bill for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1.
The move ends an embarrassing episode for the administration, which had repeatedly miscalculated the needs of veterans and used outdated budget models in fashioning estimates for Congress.
The funds, which will close a deficit in the current budget, were added to a $26.3 billion bill for next year's Interior Department budget.
The spending bill fits within Bush's budget outlines as it cuts almost $700 million from current budget levels. The extra veterans funds were needed after the Department of Veterans Affairs underestimated the number of veterans who would seek care, as well as the increased costs of treatment and long-term care.
Initially, the department said it faced about a $1 billion shortfall that could be managed by tapping reserve funds and its budget for infrastructure improvements. That did not fly with lawmakers, who insisted on adding emergency funds on top of the $28 billion appropriated last year for veterans' medical needs.
The House originally passed legislation accepting the $1 billion estimate, but Veterans Affairs soon raised its estimate to $1.3 billion. The Senate unanimously voted twice for the $1.5 billion figure. The House decided to go along.
VA estimating models for the original budget submission did not take into account the additional cost of caring for veterans injured in Iraq and Afghanistan. The demand for health care services has increased by more than 5 percent over last year. The department originally predicted a growth of about 2 percent.
The $1.5 billion is intended for the budget year ending on Sept. 30. Bush has asked for an additional $2 billion for next year on top of his February budget request.
In passing the Interior bill, lawmakers approved a significant cut in the budget of the Environmental Protection Agency, mostly from an EPA clean-water fund that gives grants to states.
The Interior measure contains $10 million for subsidizing a memorial to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. on the Mall on a four-acre site next to the Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial.
The Senate also sent to Bush a $3.8 billion measure funding Congress's budget. Lawmakers approved what they hope will be the final $42 million payment for the much-criticized Capitol Visitors Center project, which has ballooned in cost to more than five times the original estimate.