VA Mum on Bill That Offered Shutdown Protection

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Four days into a federal government shutdown that has suspended or curtailed services to hundreds of thousands of veterans, the Department of Veterans Affairs still cannot say if it backs legislation -- first filed in February -- that would provide the entire agency full funding a year in advance.

Though the identical House and Senate bills would not have guaranteed funding for all VA services for 2014 even it had passed, backers said the current shutdown is evidence the measure is needed.

“It wouldn’t have stopped [this] but if it was the law of the land … we would not be in this position [in the future],” a Senate staffer familiar with the legislation told Military.com.

But a VA spokeswoman said the department is not ready to take a view one way or the other on the proposal because the administration first needs to look at the impact across the entire government.

“Only in the context of such a broad review could the administration offer an opinion on making such a change for the VA,” spokeswoman Victoria Dillon said. “We cannot therefore offer a position … at this time.”

On Tuesday, the House passed the Honoring our Promise to America’s Veterans Act, which would ensure veterans receive VA disability compensation, pension, GI Bill and other benefits should the shutdown last an extended period. It’s unclear if it will pass in the Senate.

House lawmakers appeared taken aback in July when Acting Assistant Secretary for Policy and Planning Robert Snyder made the same case.

"I am not saying VA is against it,” he said. “I'm saying we don't have a position right now.”

House Bill 813 and Senate 932 called for discretionary spending accounts -- those used for things like disability claims processing, VA construction, and veterans’ call centers -- to be funded a year in advance. First filed by Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, it is modeled after legislation passed in 2009 that enabled full funding of all VA healthcare programs a year in advance.

It is for that reason all VA medical centers and healthcare operations are up and running regardless of the shutdown. The 2014 appropriations were included in the FY 2013 budget.

Miller said he sponsored the House bill -- Putting Veterans Funding First Act of 2013 -- to keep VA services from becoming a casualty of partisan politics.

“This legislation enjoys bipartisan and near-unanimous support from the veterans’ community, with one notable exception: the Department of Veterans Affairs,” he said in a Thursday email. The bill has 22 co-sponsors so far, 14 of them Democrats.

“This unfortunate scenario is precisely the reason why I sponsored the Putting Veterans Funding First Act, and it is precisely the reason why VA leaders, Congress, and the president should stand shoulder to shoulder with the rest of America’s veterans' community and get behind this bill,” Miller said.

Miller’s bill was reported out of committee about a month ago. However, House Speaker Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, who decides when bills get to the floor, has not scheduled a date.

The committee placed a higher priority on a separate bill to extend expiring VA program authorities, according to a committee staffer speaking on condition of anonymity.

Since the advance funding bill would only put in place a process for appropriations, and was not itself a funding bill, timing seemed less critical. But backers remain committed to seeing it passed during the current Congress, which still has 15 months remaining.

“That said, the context of the debate we’re having speaks to the need for consideration and enactment of H.R. 813 before the upcoming budget cycle,” the staffer said. “We’d also like to see an affirmative statement of support for H.R. 813 from the administration and a similar effort to advance the Senate companion measure.”

Over on the Senate side, the bill has shown less traction among lawmakers. Filed in May, the bill is still in committee. Its co-sponsors, Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, and Sen. John Boozman, R-Ariz., remain the only names attached to the proposal.

Some of the lawmakers believe the measure is a common-sense solution for funding all VA operations and services, said a Senate committee staffer familiar with the legislation who spoke on background. Others are concerned they would be legislating away regular oversight of the department.

According to Boozman, the current shutdown of VA services makes the case for advance funding of the discretionary spending accounts.

“Based on what VA has told Congress, veterans who depend on checks from VA may not receive them in November if the shutdown continues,” he said in an email Thursday to Military.com. “Not only does [advance funding] help VA better plan for the future needs of our veterans, but it avoids our veterans from becoming entangled in messy budget fights, as we are seeing play themselves out today.”

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Government Shutdown Department of Veteran Affairs Bryant Jordan
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