The VA Mission Act authorizes new health-care programs for veterans, but the bill does not reserve federal money to pay for those programs.
WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump signed a new law Wednesday aimed at expanding veterans’ access to private-sector health care. But behind the scenes his administration is fighting a bipartisan Senate effort to fund the legislation.
The VA Mission Act authorizes new health-care programs for veterans, but the bill does not reserve federal money to pay for those programs. A group of powerful Senate committee chairmen aims to remedy that by amending a separate measure to pay for the new $50 billion law, saying that adding the funds is the best way to ensure the new programs give veterans access to medical care.
But the Trump administration has engaged in a quiet effort to thwart the senators’ plan, encouraging lawmakers to vote it down and, instead, asking Congress to pay for the veterans programs by cutting spending elsewhere.
Administration officials are circulating a memo on Capitol Hill this week that slams the senators’ proposal as “anathema to responsible spending” and that predicts it would lead to ballooning costs and “virtually unlimited increases” in veterans’ spending on private health care.
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“Without subjecting the program to any budgetary constraint, there is no incentive to continue to serve veterans with innovative, streamlined and efficient quality of care,” the administration says in the memo, which was obtained by The Washington Post.
Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., head of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said that if Congress does not ratify his proposal, the alternative could be to cut $10 billion a year for five years from existing programs, including initiatives within the Veterans Affairs Department.
“If we don’t get on it, we’re going to have a hole of $10 billion in our approps,” Shelby said Tuesday, predicting “some real trouble.”
Shelby was joined in his effort by the top Appropriations Committee Democrat, Patrick Leahy of Vermont, as well as the leaders of the Veterans’ Affairs Committee, Chairman Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., and Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont. Their coalition reflects a renewed commitment in the Senate to completing spending bills on a bipartisan basis after years of budget dysfunction.
Their effort has run into stringent opposition from a White House still reeling from conservative backlash to the $1.3 trillion governmentwide spending bill Trump signed in March. The deal broke through previous spending caps with huge increases in domestic spending Democrats demanded in exchange for military spending sought by Republicans.
Conservatives, including close Trump allies, publicly slammed the spending package and criticized Trump for signing it, and the administration has subsequently dug in against new spending and worked to claw existing spending back.
Trump often touts his support of veterans and members of the armed services, promising during the campaign to fix VA and give more veterans access to private health care. As he aims to keep those promises, veterans programs are one of the few areas aside from the military where he has encouraged new spending.
But the administration says it won’t accept new spending on the veterans bill above the overall domestic spending already negotiated with Congress, saying enough money can be found within existing budget limits.
The VA spending fight could come to a head this week, as lawmakers prepare to take up a military construction and VA appropriations bill that the bipartisan group of chairmen wants to use to fund the VA Mission Act’s program.
It could be a preview of spending fights to come, with the next government shutdown deadline looming Sept. 30, just before the November midterm elections.