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Vet Groups Hit Sanders Over Bill Negotiations

VA building

Three veterans' organizations issued a statement on Friday chiding lawmakers for inserting a $17.6 billion supplemental budget request into conference committee negotiations on veterans' legislation.

"Regardless of the merits, a last-minute [Department of Veterans Affairs] request for $17.6 billion dollars in additional spending only hampers an already difficult VA conference committee negotiating process," the statement from The American Legion, AMVETS and Concerned Veterans for America read.

The statement comes as Congress readies to adjourn for the summer and lawmakers are trying to come up with a bill acceptable to all sides that can be passed and signed into law quickly.

The statement also served to distance the three groups from a letter signed by 16 other veterans' organizations and touted on Thursday by Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, to show support for the supplemental funding.

None of the three groups signed the letter, which Lou Celli, legislative director for The American Legion, said Sanders used to "make it appear as though there was broad and united support among the veterans organizations"  regarding the funding.

Celli said the Legion would have liked to sign on, but could not because no one at the VA, the White House or Congress could show how VA came up with the number.

The letter sent to the chairmen and ranking members of the Senate and House Veterans Affairs Committees noted that Acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson's testimony that the department needs $17.6 billion from now through 2017.

Celli said a paragraph stating that Congress "must quickly approve supplemental funding that fully meets the critical needs identified by Secretary Gibson" is what caused the Legion to back away from the message.

"It was agonizing for us," Celli said. "The reason is not that we're opposed to additional funding for the VA, but [no one] could explain what went into coming up with that figure."

The $17.6 billion emergency funding was first put before Congress earlier this month by Gibson, who said that was the amount needed to quickly end the backlog in appointments and get the country's veterans into VA care.

The testimony came even as House and Senate lawmakers were in discussion to resolve separate bills already passed that were aimed at improving access to healthcare. The VA, already under fire over a backlog in disability claims, has been under intense scrutiny since May after media reports that VA hospitals across the country were manipulating patient data to conceal the fact thousands of veterans were not getting the care they were seeking.

In dozens of cases veterans on a so-called secret wait list died before getting an appointment.

The scandal finally resulted in the resignations of VA Secretary Eric Shinseki.

Gibson's mid-July testimony led to Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., adding the $17.6 billion request in to conference committee negotiations.

Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., who co-chairs the committee with Sanders, and other Republican lawmakers, have balked at the sudden inclusion of the multi-billion-dollar request.

On Thursday, both men released proposals for a bill they could agree on, but not before bickering led to a GOP-only meeting on the House side and a press conference by Sanders and Democrats on the Senate side, where they chided Miller and the Republicans.

Miller on Thursday said he would go along with pretty much everything in the Senate version of the bill, but instead of agreeing to a $17.6 billion supplemental, offer $10 billion that would go to improving access to medical care and $102 million to cover VA funding shortfalls for the remainder of 2014.

But anything more than that, he said, should go through the regular appropriations process.

Celli said The American Legion believes the same thing.

During a House Veterans Affairs committee hearing on Thursday, only Disabled American Veterans Legislative Director Joseph Violante responded positively when asked if his group supported the $17.6 billion request.

Officials from the Legion, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, Paralyzed Veterans of America, Veterans of Foreign Wars and Vietnam Veterans of America showed less faith in the VA figure than would be guessed from the letter sent to Sanders.

"The $17.6 number we're not going to defend because we don't know how it came there," Rick Weidman, government affairs executive director of VVA, told the panel. He said VVA was more concerned that VA be more accountable for how it spends the money it gets, noting that millions it has been given in the past for programs have vanished with nothing to show for it.

IAVA Legislative Director Alex Nicholson said his organization "certainly supports giving the VA more resources, and believes it does need more. Whether or not $17.6 billion is the exact number we don't know and I don't think anyone knows. Our concern is making sure VA is well resourced."

-- Bryant Jordan can be reached at bryant.jordan@monster.com

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