Tactical

Spending plan for vets programs gets Senate support, but fights loom

Senate appropriators on Thursday advanced plans for $320 billion in Veterans Affairs spending in fiscal 2024, setting up a showdown with their House counterparts — not on budget levels, but on social issue fights attached to veterans programming plans.

The measure, adopted by a bipartisan, unanimous vote in the Senate Appropriations Committee, includes a roughly 6% increase in funding for VA operations next fiscal year.

That hike matches the level outlined in the debt limit deal negotiated by the White House and Republican leaders last month, as well as the spending outline from the House Appropriations Committee passed earlier this month. Senate Appropriations Chairwoman Patty Murray, D-Wash., said the measure provides veterans with “the support we owe them and the support they need.”

The measure includes $16.2 billion for mental health care (up 17% from fiscal 2023 levels), $3.1 billion for homelessness prevention efforts (up 16%) and $1.3 billion for women’s health initiatives (up 50%).

What the Senate measure doesn’t include is language regarding abortion services at VA facilities or restrictions on transgender medical care.

Those issues and others were inserted into the House version of the budget bill last week, over the objections of House Democrats. Republican leaders of the House committee said the moves are needed to rein in political posturing by department leaders.

Language in the House budget bill would ban VA from providing abortion services — something they have been doing since last fall — as well as medical care for transgender veterans. VA has promised to provide gender confirmation surgery in the future but has not conducted any operations as of yet. Medical staff do provide hormone therapy and other transgender-specific care.

None of those social issue fights were included in the Senate draft, adopted by the full committee after only a few minutes of debate. Murray said she hopes to move the VA and other budget bills “in an orderly and timely way” to ensure federal programs don’t face the threat of a possible partial shutdown this fall.

Since the spending totals in the House and Senate drafts largely match, the biggest obstacle to completing the VA appropriations work appears to be finding ways to reconcile the controversial limits on department services preferred by House Republicans.

Both measures are expected to be voted on by their respective chambers in the coming weeks, then head to inter-chamber negotiations for the rest of the summer. In past years, the VA budget has typically been one of the earliest spending bills finished because of bipartisan support for veterans care and benefits.

Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.

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