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Budget Chairmen Weigh in on Veterans Funding Fight

‘Proponents of the effort argue that it is needed to ensure adequate care for our veterans. We disagree.’

Rep. Steve Womack, R-Ark. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Rep. Steve Womack, R-Ark. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

House Budget Chairman Steve Womack, R-Ark., and Senate Budget Chairman Michael B. Enzi, R-Wyo., wrote to top appropriators in both chambers Tuesday insisting that funding for veterans private medical care be kept within the topline $597 billion nondefense spending cap for fiscal 2019. 

That’s a direct shot at the Senate Appropriations leadership on both sides, who want to exempt from budget limits additional funds for the so-called Veterans Choice Program, enacted after the 2014 wait-time scandal at the Department of Veterans Affairs.

“Proponents of the effort argue that it is needed to ensure adequate care for our veterans. We disagree. The issue really comes down to whether we are willing to prioritize care for our veterans within existing spending limits,” Womack and Enzi wrote.

House Republicans and Trump administration officials have made clear their opposition to increasing spending limits agreed to in February to accommodate more veterans health care spending. But Enzi’s opposition undercuts what had been a fairly unified, bipartisan Senate push to raise spending limits in order to avoid cutting programs elsewhere in the VA or nondefense budget writ large.

Financing Choice and other “community care” programs that help veterans see doctors closer to home or in facilities that offer services they can’t find at a VA hospital, could cost $20 billion over the next three years. That includes an extra $1.1 billion in fiscal 2019 on top of what Senate appropriators included in their version of the Military Construction-VA spending bill.

Appropriators didn’t previously have this problem, as Choice was funded through mandatory spending outside of the committees’ purview. But Trump signed a bill earlier this year consolidating Choice with several other existing community care programs and designating the money as discretionary, and therefore subject to annual budget limits. Since then, appropriators have been struggling to determine how to account for the additional spending needs of the program, which are expected to significantly increase in the coming years — potentially crowding out other nondefense programs.

The House opted to increase spending in its Military Construction-VA spending bill by $1.1 billion and decrease spending in its Homeland Security spending bill by an equal amount. The Senate was on track to consider a bipartisan amendment that would have increased the total amount of discretionary spending by the amount needed for the program.

The House and Senate have technically agreed to go to conference on a three-bill package including Military Construction-VA, but were forced to scrap their first meeting last week over the lingering dispute over veterans funds.

The missive from Womack and Enzi is similar in tone to a letter sent to the spending panels from OMB Director Mick Mulvaney and Department of Veterans Affairs Acting Secretary Peter O’Rourke on Monday. In their letter, the two administration officials demanded Congress fit the $1.1 billion additional needed during fiscal 2019 within next year’s nondefense spending cap.

“We have a responsibility to provide our veterans with the care they deserve, while also being good stewards of the taxpayer dollar,” they wrote.

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