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Vets Bill Held Up in Partisan Warfare

A decision by Democratic lawmakers to delay sending the veterans spending bill to the president so they can use it as leverage to pass other spending bills has outraged a band of Republicans who say veterans are being held hostage to politics.

Both the House and Senate have passed bills with historic increases in spending on veterans’ benefits but have yet to move to a conference. The bill, which also includes military construction, is the only appropriations measure that spends more than President Bush sought in his budget that he has not threatened to veto, although the administration argues that veterans do not need the nearly $4 billion Democrats added to the bill. Only two Members voted against the bill in the House and one in the Senate, with even ardent conservatives eager for veto fights over other spending hoping to avoid a politically charged battle over popular veterans benefits, especially with the country at war.

Republicans now are attacking Democrats for slow-walking the veterans bill.

Rep. Steve Pearce (R-N.M.) and 43 other Republicans sent Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) a letter last week demanding prompt action on the bill.

“Veterans should not be used as tools for political bargaining and gamesmanship,” Pearce said in a statement, citing a Roll Call report on the subject. “Both the House and Senate passed the [bill] with overwhelming majorities because our commitment to veterans rises above partisan squabbling.”

Rep. Chet Edwards (D-Texas), the chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Military Construction and Veterans Affairs, said Bush’s veto threat on other bills has effectively held up the veterans’ bill.

That’s because Bush is demanding that Democrats keep to his top-line number of $933 billion, even if he signs the $4 billion increase in veterans spending.

That means Democrats would have to cut other bills by $4 billion. Democrats want to spend about $22 billion more than Bush’s budget overall.

Edwards said he “wouldn’t be perturbed” if his bill was used to anchor a larger spending package.

“I’m confident at the end of the day, whether it’s a free-standing bill or part of an omnibus, we will pass an historic increase in veterans’ funding,” Edwards said. “I hope we can do it in a timely way.”

House Appropriations spokeswoman Kirstin Brost dismissed the Republican critics, noting that they failed to enact a veterans spending bill at all last year when they controlled Congress and the White House.

“This is a cute diversion from folks who don’t want to talk about the fact that the president thinks the House bill over-invests in veterans. The House bill tries to improve the quality of veterans’ health care and reduce the obscene backlogs facing those who have served. The president calls these efforts ‘excessive’ and threatened to veto other bills if we don’t spend less on veterans. Who is playing politics here?” she said.

As a practical matter, if Democrats package popular veterans benefits with domestic programs, it will sorely test Republicans’ commitment to holding the line on spending. Enough House Republicans signed a letter earlier this year vowing to uphold Bush vetoes on spending bills, but with little room to spare.

Democrats, meanwhile, must pass a spending continuing resolution by the end of the week to avert a government shutdown. Such bills typically only allow spending to continue at the previous year’s rate, but Democrats may choose to add some relatively noncontroversial items. Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.) said additional funding requested by the Pentagon for new mine-resistant vehicles will be included in the CR.

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