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House Republicans Defend Spending Plan for Veterans’ Programs

Hoping to defuse an issue that could dog them in next year’s Congressional elections, House Republicans accused Democrats on Tuesday of distorting their record on veterans’ issues.

Democrats have hammered Republicans for proposing “massive” cuts in veterans programs and for initially approving a budget that reduced such spending by $28 billion over 10 years.

But that is not so, Republicans countered at a press conference titled “Setting the Record Straight.”

“Nothing could be further from the truth,” said Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), chairman of the Veterans’ Affairs Committee.

In fact, the 2004 budget conference report increases veterans’ spending by almost 11 percent over 2003 levels, he said, adding that only in Washington can an increase be called a cut. “If we don’t get it right in the future, we’re open to criticism,” Smith said. “But we did get it right this time.”

After lamenting the polarization that has beset the traditionally bipartisan committee, Smith was quick to explain that Democrats on the panel have worked with Republicans while the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has been “politicizing” the issue.

“The other side has circulated false reports for political gain [that are] … nothing but scare tactics,” Budget Chairman Jim Nussle (R-Iowa) added.

A spokesman for the DCCC tossed aside such criticism.

“It’s not surprising that House Republicans are desperately spinning their record on veterans’ issues,” the DCCC’s Greg Speed said. “Their budget revealed their priorities … which is to slash veterans’ spending to pay for tax cuts for the wealthy,” he said, adding that the House GOP is now disavowing the chamber’s version of the budget.

Republicans conceded that the Democrats’ charges have resonated back in many of their districts.

“We were putting out fires all across the country,” Smith said, adding that it got to the point where Republicans had to hold a news conference to counter the bad press.

Democrats, however, show no signs of backing off.

Rep. John Spratt (D) of South Carolina, the ranking member on the Budget Committee, wrote in a “Dear Colleague” letter penned Friday that even the conference report cuts veterans’ funding.

“The conference agreement increased funding for appropriated veterans’ health care programs for 2004 by $2.6 billion above the amount needed to maintain purchasing power at the 2003 level, but cut appropriations for veterans’ health care by a total of $6.2 billion below that level over 10 years,” he wrote.

The cuts may not stop there, Spratt added, because the report also agrees to an unspecified 10-year cut of $128 billion in discretionary spending, which could be applied to any part of the budget, including veterans’ programs.

Republicans, who focused on next year’s spending, maintain that the report ups 2004 discretionary spending by almost 13 percent, with 90 percent of the extra money going toward medical care.

They also tried to drive home the point that since seizing the majority, their party has been the true friend of veterans.

“We have increased funding for Veterans Affairs medical care from about $16 billion in fiscal year 1996 to almost $24 billion in fiscal year 2003 — a 50 percent increase over six years,” Smith said.

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