Veterans groups, military associations and lawmakers will be out in force Wednesday demanding passage of legislation to fund the entire Department of Veterans Affairs a year in advance to ensure the agency is not again caught up in the political infighting that led to a government-wide shutdown.
Bills for advance funding have been filed in both the House and Senate, although neither chamber has put its version on the floor for a vote.
David Autry, deputy national director of communications for the Disabled American Veterans, believes the two week shutdown, which froze processing of veterans appeals' claims and threatened to stall disability compensation payments, may have tipped the scales in favor of advanced funding.
"I think there is a good chance of that," he said. "We understand that in addition to the legislation as written, there's a good chance that it will be amended to include all mandatory and discretionary funding."
The House version of the bill, H.R. 813, has already moved through committee and has been sent to the floor, but has yet to be voted on. The Senate version, S. 932, remains in committee. One DAV official said in an Oct. 24 email to fellow veterans groups that DAV hoped Sen. Bernie Sander, I-Vt., and ranking member Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., would back the legislation.
"We are modeling this press conference on the one we did in January 2009 during our successful efforts to pass the first advance appropriations law," DAV Senior Adviser Peter Dickinson said in the email.
That bill had bipartisan support in both houses and was supported by a coalition of major veterans' groups and military associations. The measure provided advance funding for about 85 percent of VA operations, mostly covering healthcare.
Autry said Sanders would be at the 9 a.m. Wednesday press conference, on the House Triangle on the east side of the U.S. Capitol. Military.com was unable to get confirmation that Sanders would be there.
When the shutdown began at midnight on Oct. 1 the VA's network of hospitals and clinics continued to function, but the Veterans Benefits Administration was forced to close regional offices when staff were sent home. The shutdown also halted work on computer software intended to improve electronic processing of claims and also shut down various call-in lines.
Throughout the nearly two-week shutdown VA officials and representatives from veterans groups also argued the loss of claims processing work would result in the backlog growing worse after steadily progressing. That turned out to be not the case with first-time claims – which make up the most serious backlog in terms of numbers.
When the VA released its first post-shutdown backlog report on Oct. 21 the numbers showed a drop of about 10,000 from just before Oct. 1.
Some Republican lawmakers accused the VA of using the backlog as a scare tactic, though other effects of the shutdown – services and work that were suspended or slowed – were real enough. This included a reduced schedule of internments at national cemeteries.
Veterans groups, for their part, blasted lawmakers for using veterans and, in particular, the World War II Memorial in Washington, DC, as props and backdrops in what the organizations considered a political battle.
The Military Coalition, made up of 33 veterans' groups and military associations, called for an end to the shutdown during a press conference Oct. 15 at the World War II Memorial.
Autry, of DAV, likened the Wednesday press conference to that show of force, though this time veterans are sharing the stage with legislators from both chambers and both parties. He said lawmakers turning out for the press conference include Sanders, Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, and the ranking members of each.
Groups will include DAV, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, The American Legion, and Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, and the Military Officers Association of America.