House Republicans are floating investigating the Department of Veterans Affairs or cutting its communications budget as they fume about the Biden administration's messaging on the House GOP's debt limit proposal.
The potential reprisals were suggested by a couple of lawmakers during a press call over the weekend hosted by the No. 3 House Republican, Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., in which Republicans insisted the debt limit and spending cut bill they recently passed would not result in reductions to veterans health care and benefits, contrary to recent VA warnings.
"Obviously, they have too much money in the communications department if they're spending it on political purposes," Rep. Andy Harris, R-Md., said in suggesting cuts to the VA's press office.
At issue is a bill passed by House Republicans last week that would raise what's known as the debt ceiling in exchange for placing a cap on the overall amount of money the government can spend. The bill does not specifically mandate cuts to the VA or any other department, but it also does not specifically protect any department. Instead, lawmakers would determine later which agencies would take cuts and which ones wouldn't during the annual appropriations process.
While some congressional Republicans have vowed to protect the Pentagon from budget cuts as part of the debt ceiling fight, the Biden administration has issued warnings based on the assumption that every other federal department would face a 22% cut in order to meet the cap in the GOP bill.
Ahead of the House vote on the bill, the VA said that a 22% cut would mean being able to handle 30 million fewer outpatient visits than planned, eliminating 81,000 Veterans Health Administration jobs and 6,000 Veterans Benefits Administration jobs, and increasing the disability claims backlog by an estimated 134,000 claims.
The VA warning, along with subsequent statements from congressional Democrats and the White House framing the cuts as written into the GOP bill, infuriated Republicans. On the weekend press call, Stefanik accused the Biden administration of "shamelessly lying" about the contents of the bill.
Citing federal laws against government officials making false statements, Rep. Andrew Clyde, R-Ga., also said that "we need to investigate this."
"It is nothing more than a fear tactic," Clyde continued. "When the Democrats don't have the facts on their side, they use lies, emotion and volume. President Biden is abusing veterans once again, and I think Congress should investigate this."
In response to the latest GOP defenses of their bill, the White House issued a statement Tuesday accusing Republicans of wanting to "hollow out" the VA.
"Unless moderates are willing to stand up to the extreme MAGA groups that have taken over the conference, the House GOP is going to define themselves as so indentured to multinational corporations and billionaires that they're willing to make the biggest cuts to veterans benefits in American history," White House spokesperson Andrew Bates said in the statement, using the abbreviation for former President Donald Trump's "Make America Great Again" slogan.
The political posturing comes as the Treasury Department warned Monday that the U.S. could hit the debt ceiling as soon as June 1, bumping up its previous estimate of defaulting on U.S. debts from somewhere between July and September. The debt ceiling or limit is the amount of money the Treasury Department can borrow in order to pay for spending Congress has already approved through the annual appropriations process. Economists and administration officials have warned that an unprecedented default could cripple the American economy by reducing faith in U.S. credit and increasing interest rates.
Under the House GOP plan, the debt ceiling would be raised by $1.5 trillion or to March 31, 2024 -- whichever comes first. In exchange, discretionary spending in 2024 would be capped at 2022 levels, which is about $130 billion less than this year's spending level. Spending growth over the next decade would also be capped at 1%.
While it would be possible to meet the cap without cutting either the Pentagon, which makes up about half of the discretionary budget, or the VA, which represents more than one-sixth of the non-defense discretionary budget, doing so would require steep cuts to other government agencies that Democrats are not likely to agree to. Left-leaning think tanks have estimated protecting both Pentagon and VA spending would mean more than 30% cuts to everything else.
The bill is dead on arrival in the Democratic-controlled Senate, but House Republicans view the measure as their opening offer in debt ceiling talks. After the Treasury's announcement Monday, the White House said President Joe Biden invited congressional leaders to a meeting next week. The White House has said that it will not negotiate a budget deal tied to the debt ceiling, which it insists should be raised without other stipulations.
Asked Thursday about GOP complaints that the VA's warnings about the effects of the bill were fearmongering and lies, VA Secretary Denis McDonough maintained he had not seen the Republican criticism but said that "if there's something for me to say to my Republican colleagues on the Hill, I'll say that to them personally."
"A fair reading of that [bill] would suggest that we, as we prepare for the provision of care in the next year, be ready for the full range of options, the full range of outcomes," McDonough said at his monthly press conference, while incorrectly asserting the GOP bill includes a carveout for the Defense Department. "And that's what we're doing."
On the House Republican press call over the weekend, House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Mike Bost, R-Ill., said he spoke with McDonough on Sunday morning. Bost said he told McDonough that he was "disappointed" but that "the conversation didn't go much past that."
"No veteran will lose benefits," Bost vowed. "In my nine years as a member of Congress, I have never seen the use of an agency that is so vitally important to so many people be used as a political hammer to deliver a message that is false so that it would stir people up to cause our veterans to be used as pawns."
-- Rebecca Kheel can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @reporterkheel.