Lawmakers Battle Over Veterans Health Funding

Lawmakers Battle Over Veterans Health Funding

REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

A complicated fight over spending on a veterans health program is throwing a wrench into the congressional appropriations process for 2019. The showdown could force lawmakers to fall back on another continuing resolution to avert a government shutdown once 2018 funding runs out at the end of September.

What the fight is about: The issue is whether to stay within current budget caps or to go beyond those limits, set as part of a bipartisan deal earlier this year, to fund the popular VA Choice program and its successor under the recently enacted VA Mission Act.

The question arose after President Trump last month signed into law the VA Mission Act, which shifted funding sources for some veterans health programs and required Congress to allocate discretionary money for them. “Because that shift came after the budget deal was struck, top spending leaders in the Senate contend that it doesn’t make sense to be constrained to the old top line established before the change to the veterans program,” Politico’s Sarah Ferris and Jennifer Scholtes report.

What the two sides say: The White House and Republicans leaders of the House and Senate budget committees have come out in favor of sticking with the existing budget caps and finding funding offsets elsewhere. “It is entirely reasonable to expect that Congress can find the $1-2 billion needed within the overall $597 billion spending limit,” Sen. Mike Enzi (R-WY) and Rep. Steve Womack (R-AR) wrote in a letter to fellow appropriators.

But Senate Appropriations Committee Vice Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT) last week argued that deep cuts to other domestic or veterans programs would be necessary if VA Choice were to be funded under existing caps, since the program will face an $8.67 billion shortfall in fiscal 2020 and a $9.5 billion shortfall the following year. 

House leaders last week abruptly called off a negotiating session on the first three of 12 required fiscal 2019 spending bills once it became clear that Leahy was planning to offer an amendment that would fund the veterans health efforts with money above the budget caps, Politico said.

Why it matters: Beyond the matter of funding the veterans program, “the breakdown does not bode well for broader spending negotiations leading up to the fiscal 2019 deadline,” Ferris and Scholtes write.