Plans for a $300-billion budget for the Department of Veterans Affairs in fiscal 2023 appear likely to become law after Senate appropriators backed that target in their latest spending proposal.
But when lawmakers will formally approve the funding deal remains unclear.
On Thursday, Democrats on the Senate Appropriations Committee released their draft budget for next year, a $1.7 trillion plan that includes about $300 billion for VA operations. That figure closely mirrors both the mark approved for veterans programs and benefits by the House Appropriations Committee last month and what was suggested by the White House earlier this year.
In a statement, Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M. and chair of the appropriations committee’s veterans panel, said the proposal “provides a groundbreaking investment in VA healthcare and research, and funds VA’s efforts to improve infrastructure and modernize the disability claims process.”
If approved, the budget would be about a 10% increase from fiscal 2022 levels and represent the largest spending plan in department history.
It would also mark another year of significant growth for VA program spending, even as other federal departments have seen cuts in recent years.
In 2001, the entire VA budget — including both discretionary program spending and mandatory benefits payouts — amounted to about $45 billion. By 2013, the budget totaled $139 billion, still less than half of this year’s request.
Despite that dramatic rise, lawmakers have generally backed the growth in VA spending, and appear more in sync on the veterans spending plan than other budget proposals.
For example, Senate and House appropriators have already offered at least four different budget targets for the Defense Department for fiscal 2023, ranging from $762 billion to $847 billion.
Chamber leaders are expected to spend the next few months negotiating a compromise on those differences. Meanwhile, the comparatively non-controversial VA spending plan is unlikely to move ahead until the entire federal budget plan is agreed upon.
The $300 billion Senate plan for VA includes $13.9 billion for mental health care (up 6% from this year), $2.7 billion for homeless assistance programs (up 24%), $911 million for gender specific health care programs (up 8%) and $183 million for substance abuse disorder programs (up 17%).
If lawmakers cannot reach a full federal spending plan before the end of the current fiscal year (Sept. 30), they will need to adopt a short-term budget extension to stave off a partial government shutdown.
If that does not happen, however, most VA programs and operations will continue even without an active budget plan because Congress approves advanced appropriations for the department annually. That will keep benefits checks, hospital services and related support programs active even if a political fight shuts down other departments.
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.