The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Shutdown deadline nears as White House, Congress tangle over VA funding

Negotiators must resolve differences by Dec. 11 or a government shutdown will begin.

The White House near dusk. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

The Trump administration is injecting new demands into congressional negotiations over a government spending bill that threaten to sink the must-pass package, people familiar with the discussions said.

The disagreement concerns how to classify $12.5 billion in cost increases in veterans’ health care, expenses that are part of veterans’ care changes signed into law by President Trump in 2018 with much fanfare.

The impasse could complicate the ongoing negotiations over legislation to fund the government, which if not resolved would lead the federal government to shutdown on Dec. 11 in the middle of the pandemic — a dangerous scenario lawmakers are working to avoid.

In a speech to veterans on Nov. 15, 2018, President Trump talked about his actions for them. "The fact is, I've done a lot. Goodbye, everybody," he joked. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

Months ago, lawmakers agreed to designate the increased cost of veterans’ health care as emergency spending. Emergency spending isn’t subject to certain spending restrictions. But on Friday, administration officials insisted to congressional officials that the $12.5 billion in veterans’ care cost increases be considered non-emergency spending, said people who spoke on the condition of anonymity to provide details about the private negotiations.

Current budget law allows for only a $5 billion increase on overall nondefense discretionary spending for this year. Some Republican lawmakers believe that the veterans’ funding should be counted as non-emergency spending, which would prevent further increases in spending elsewhere. Congressional Democrats have insisted the veterans’ funding be excluded from non-discretionary spending.

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In 2019, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin disagreed over whether to count the veterans’ funding against the caps for nondefense spending. The amount of money in dispute represents a tiny fraction of the overall federal deficit, which soared above $3 trillion under Trump due to the government’s extraordinary efforts to fight the coronavirus.

Congressional aides were informed on Friday of the administration’s new demand, the people said. It was not immediately clear how much Trump himself is directly involved in the request.

“A lot of promises have been made to veterans for improved health care, and without funding to implement those, those promises are hollow,” said one of the people familiar with the talks. The people also cautioned that the talks were fluid and subject to change.

A White House spokesman declined a request to comment. The Treasury Department did not immediately comment.

House Republicans will probably back the White House’s position, with one congressional aide criticizing lawmakers who want to “hold this vital funding hostage to cater to a desire to increase discretionary spending elsewhere.” The aide, like others interviewed for this story, spoke on the condition of anonymity to frankly discuss internal caucus dynamics.

It was unclear how seriously the rift over the veterans’ spending issue complicates negotiations to avert a government shutdown. White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows said earlier this week that he could not guarantee lawmakers would avert the shutdown, which would arrive amid a surge in coronavirus cases and the expiration of other federal protections across the country.

President Trump has repeatedly tried to erase former president Barack Obama and the late Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) from the history of the Veterans Choice Act. (Video: The Washington Post)

The VA Mission Act, which received overwhelming support in Congress, is a $55 billion package that greatly expands access to private doctors for veterans at taxpayer cost. It was meant to address significant shortcomings in the Department of Veterans Affairs’ health-care system, which were particularly highlighted in a 2014 scandal in which VA employees were found to have fudged patient wait lists.

Spin, hyperbole and deception: How Trump claimed credit for an Obama veterans achievement