Democratic lawmakers are warning that Republican leaders’ debt limit plan will severely hurt veterans by slashing their programming budget. GOP lawmakers are dismissing their Democratic counterparts for fear mongering and politicizing veterans’ care.
Veterans advocates, caught in the middle, just want to know if their programs will be funded next year.
As budget fights mount in Congress, spending on veterans support has become a flashpoint for the two sides, with party leaders both insisting the other is exploiting one of the last refuges of bipartisan consensus on Capitol Hill for some short-term political points.
On Wednesday, House Democrats led by former Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., held a rally decrying the Republican Limit-Save-Grow Act, passed just a few minutes later along party lines.
The measure would set next year’s non-defense federal spending at fiscal 2022 levels, about 20% below what President Joe Biden requested in his budget plan released earlier this spring. It does not specify a target for Veterans Affairs funding next year, but Democrats say it will inevitably lead to reductions in the department’s budget.
“They’re seeking to balance the budget on the backs of veterans, no matter what the consequences,” said Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif. and ranking member of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, in front of a crowd of cheering supporters.
The rally was the latest in weeks of attacks by Democratic leaders concerning the spending plan. Earlier in the day, the White House released a letter from 23 veterans organizations “not to pass this legislation unless it includes protections for VA funding.” Veterans Affairs leaders last week asserted the plan would mean “30 million fewer veteran outpatient visits and 81,000 jobs lost across the Veterans Health Administration.”
In March, during a House Veterans’ Affairs Committee hearing on the state of VA operations, the repeated chorus of Democrats mentioning “devastating” Republican budget cut plans prompted glares and shouts from multiple GOP members, who insisted they have no plans to cut back veterans spending.
Similar sniping has occurred at subsequent hearings. On the House floor Wednesday, Committee Chairman Mike Bost, R-Ill., called the criticism “false and dangerous rhetoric” from the Democrats.
“With no regard for the impact of their words, they continue to spread malarkey about House Republicans ‘cutting veterans’ benefits,’ he said. “Simply put, they are playing politics with our veterans. Veterans are not political pawns to advance a political agenda.”
House Republican leaders have said the Limit-Save-Grow Act — which would also raise the country’s debt limit, avoiding a historic and fiscally damaging default on the country’s debt — will help bring runaway federal spending under control. But they have also publicly pledged that items programs Social Security, Medicare and veterans benefits will be fully funded.
That begs the question of where the Republicans’ federal agency cuts will come from.
Biden has proposed a $325 billion budget for VA next fiscal year, more than $50 billion than the target set in the fiscal 2022 budget. Part of that total includes money to carry out the Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics Act (better known as the PACT Act) passed last summer, which promises new disability benefits and health care to millions of veterans, including those affected by toxic burn pits.
If the GOP budget bill were to become law, it would require deep cuts for non-defense agencies in order to preserve veterans program money. That plan is not specifically outlined in the legislation.
The uncertainty surrounding the situation prompted officials from the Veterans of Foreign Wars to send a letter to Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., asking for amendments to the GOP budget bill, which would “provide explicit assurances on how Congress will continue to properly invest in VA programming.”
Passing the measure without those caveats would be “unacceptable,” VFW leaders said.
Similarly, leaders from Paralyzed Veterans of America said in a statement that while they appreciate Republican leaders’ public assurances that veterans funding will not be cut, “the pending legislation provides no specific protections for veterans with catastrophic disabilities, specifically the services and supports they and their families depend on.”
White House officials have already said the GOP spending plan is a non-starter for multiple reasons, calling into question whether the specific debate over veterans funding is more for shaping public opinion than public policy.
But advocates say that regardless of the motivation, support for veterans is now squarely in the center of the fight. They want both sides to promise that veterans care and benefits won’t be held hostage by these political squabbles.
“Congress has championed monumental advancements in veteran care and benefits in the past few years,” VFW Executive Director Ryan Gallucci wrote in the group’s letter to McCarthy. “We believe we need to continue pushing forward instead of taking steps backward in serving our veterans.”
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.