Veterans

Senate fight over Zika funds sidelines VA funding bill

Political squabbling over funding to fight the Zika virus sidelined next year's Veterans Affairs appropriations plans on Tuesday, leaving the department's fiscal 2017 budget in doubt heading into the height of election season.

Senate Democrats blocked a procedural move to advance the spending bill, which included  $176.9 billion in VA funding starting in October, $7.9 billion for military construction projects and $1.1 billion for Zika prevention. The House approved the compromise budget bill a week earlier, along party lines.

If the Senate had adopted the measure, it would have headed to the president to be signed into law. Instead, the spending budget bill now sits in legislative limbo, waiting for a vote at an unknown future date. 

The appropriations plan totaled $74.4 billion in discretionary spending for VA programs next year, nearly 4 percent more than what the department received last year but about $700 million less than what the White House requested in its budget plan.

But Democrats' objections focused mainly on the Zika provisions, money that was carved out from other government programs instead of supplying supplemental funding to address the public health issue.

"It wouldn't be truly an emergency funding," said Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., "Go ahead, let's whack Obamacare, Ebola money, veterans, Planned Parenthood … I can't imagine how anyone would have the audacity to come to the floor and talk about what a great piece of legislation this is."

But Republicans accused Democrats of refusing to compromise and letting politics block progress on a host of critical issues.

"We sit here in a partisan gridlock manufactured by the other side over issues that it’s pretty hard for the general public to understand," said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kyentucky.

"Here we are, going into the 4th of July [recess], and we've impeded the passage of funding to deal with an impending public health crisis and in the same vote managed to vote against veterans as well."

McConnell said he plans on bringing the issue up for a vote again when the Senate returns next week, but lawmakers face a short legislative window to adopt the legislation. The chamber has only eight session days left this summer before leaving for an extended election-year break, and may shorten that workload if no progress is realistic on a host of pending bills.

If the VA and military construction budget isn't approved by mid-July, lawmakers won't be able to finalize it until September at the earliest. VA officials have complained in the past that uncertainty over the coming fiscal year budget makes long-term planning difficult and causes undue stress for veterans dependent on many department programs.

About $63.3 billion in advance appropriations for fiscal 2017 was approved by Congress last year to avoid some of the program shutdowns caused by past political fights, but that would not cover all VA operations in the event of a budget delay past September.

Leo Shane III covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He can be reached at lshane@militarytimes.com.

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