Bill to Shield Veterans Services From Government Shutdown Advances

WASHINGTON -- A bill to secure the funding of veterans' services in a time of uncertain federal budgets won an initial legislative victory on Capitol Hill this week.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said he will call a vote before the end of the year on the Putting Veterans Funding First Act. Reid announced this in a letter sent Tuesday to the bill's sponsor, Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, who is in the midst of a tough re-election battle.

Reid's green-light on the vote was no doubt a midterm run-up gift to Begich -- he called the senator a "tireless advocate" of the state's 73,000 vets -- but it also answered the calls of groups such as Disabled American Veterans, who say veterans need to know health, benefits and other services will not cease due to a budget impasse in Congress or a shutdown of the federal government, which have both been threats in recent years due to political gridlock.

In his letter, Reid said he decided to allow the floor vote to coincide with Veterans Day.

The federal government partially shut down for over two weeks a year ago, causing work to stop on the processing of hundreds of thousands of veteran disability claims and threaten disability compensation checks, Begich wrote in a published op-ed about his bill earlier this month.

He said the bill would protect those veterans from being caught in another budget showdown by requiring Congress to lay out VA funding a year in advance.

"The result would be no disruptions in services for veterans in the event of any future government shutdown and no danger of cutting off veterans' checks," Begich wrote. "No one in their right mind wants a repeat of that dark period -- and the Putting Veterans Funding First Act would prevent it."

The DAV has been lobbying for the change.

The group's National Commander Ronald Hope said Thursday that "chronically late appropriations bills" have "sabotaged" the VA's ability to provide services.

"Without a timely budget, the VA is left without knowing what level of funding it will receive each year or when it will arrive," Hope said in a released statement.

But the vote in the Senate is just one step forward and the legislation still faces hurdles to becoming law, he said.

"While the Putting Veterans Funding First Act was overwhelmingly approved by both the Senate and House Veterans' Affairs Committees, there could still be some significant obstacles to overcome before it is passed by both chambers," Hope said. "Even for this noncontroversial and budget-neutral bill, political maneuvering and partisan gamesmanship remain a threat until it is finally enacted into law."

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