Senate appropriators on Wednesday backed White House plans for another substantial boost in funding for the Department of Veterans Affairs next year, signaling strong support for the idea across congressional chambers.
The committee also supported plans from the administration and House appropriators to spend about $11 billion in military construction projects next year, even as lawmakers continue to argue over the total level of defense spending for fiscal 2022.
“[This plan] enhances readiness and quality of life for servicemembers and their families, and funds quality care and benefits for our nation’s veterans,” said Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M. and chairman of the appropriations committee’s panel on VA spending.
“Homelessness services and prevention will be continued with this funding, and it makes a historic level of investment in medical research.”
The VA/Military Construction bill passed by a 25-5 vote, with most Republican votes against the measure focused largely on complaints about the budgeting process and not the specifics of the spending plan.
If approved by the full House and Senate later this year, the legislation would boost discretionary spending for Veterans Affairs by nearly 9 percent (to about $113 billion) and raise total department spending to nearly $270 billion next year, the largest in history.
That would mark yet another substantial funding increase for a department that has seen uninterrupted raises for the last 20 years.
In fiscal 2001, the VA budget totaled about $45 billion. By fiscal 2011, it was about $125 billion, almost triple that total. Ten years later, in 2021, the department’s budget was nearly double that again, at $245 billion.
The Senate Appropriations Committee plan is about $200 million less than what House lawmakers approved last week for VA spending next year, with small differences in medical program spending. House appropriators added that money to President Joe Biden’s budget proposal released in May.
The committee added language to the bill which would rescind federal rules prohibiting VA doctors from discussing medical cannabis use with patients. The idea has been floated by lawmakers multiple times in recent years, but failed to become law.
Within the Senate plan, $13.1 billion would be set aside for veterans mental health care services, $2.4 billion for expanded telehealth services, $2.1 billion for veterans homelessness prevention efforts and $1.4 billion for VA’s program supporting caregivers.
Another $2.5 billion would be set aside for implementation of VA’s new electronic medical records overhaul plan, which was halted earlier this summer after department officials found serious flaws with their training and deployment schedule. House lawmakers had approved $100 million more for that work, above the president’s request.
“By providing record-level funding for our veterans, we are demonstrating our commitment to addressing critical challenges they face including preventing veteran suicide, increasing rural access to health care, investing in essential mental health programs, and putting an end to veteran homelessness,” Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark. and ranking member of the appropriations committee’s panel on VA spending, said in a statement.
As it has in recent years, the bill also includes about $267 billion in advance appropriations for VA in fiscal 2023, to ensure that potential Capitol Hill fiscal fights do not disrupt VA medical care or benefits delivery.
On the military construction side, about $1.4 billion of the $11 billion total would be set aside for improvements and maintenance for military housing.
Despite the bipartisan vote out of committee, the future of the VA and military construction budget bill remains uncertain. During Wednesday’s hearing, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said he plans to block the spending bills on the chamber floor until his party gets concessions on military spending.
“Our Democratic colleagues must commit to respecting parity,” he said. “National security and border security need to grow at parity with non-defense [agencies] within an overall number that we can all accept. The Senate cannot be writing budgets based on the president’s partisan budget request with cuts to defense funding.”
Senate appropriators have signaled they may support increasing military spending over the $715 billion mark set in Biden’s budget, but House appropriators have already approved plans for a defense budget at that level for next fiscal year.
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.