The White House is siding with House Republicans and the chairmen of Congress’s budget committees in a dispute with senators over veterans’ health care funding that has stalled negotiations over an initial package of 2019 spending bills.
Senate appropriators are trying to figure out how to make up a billion dollar-plus gap next year in funding for VA Choice, a popular program that allows veterans to seek care from private hospitals and doctors.
The White House said lawmakers need to find the money within existing spending caps set in a deal reached earlier this year, and that the administration would oppose any effort to increase or adjust the caps again.
The current 2019 non-defense discretionary spending cap level of $597 billion is “more than sufficient to fully fund the additional needs,” Acting Secretary of Veterans Affairs Peter O’Rourke and White House budget director Mick Mulvaney wrote to lawmakers this week.
Mr. Trump last month signed legislation, known as the VA MISSION Act, that consolidated parts of VA Choice and provided $5.2 billion to temporarily extend it.
But absent new money, it could run out of funds by next May, leaving Senate appropriators trying to make up a projected gap of $1.6 billion in 2019 that could swell to a combined $18 billion in 2020 and 2021.
“We got to figure out how to do it,” said Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby.
The White House got support this week from Rep. Steve Womack and Sen. Mike Enzi, the chairmen of the House and Senate Budget Committees respectively.
“This issue really comes down to whether we are willing to prioritize care for our veterans within existing spending limits,” they wrote to Mr. Shelby and other key appropriators.
Lawmakers have gotten around the spending limits in the past by simply exempting programs, like they do frequently with special war funding, or by increasing the caps themselves, as they did in March.
But Mr. Womack told The Washington Times he thinks it’s “ill-advised” for lawmakers to be talking again about busting through the caps.
“[We] want to make sure that we take care of our veterans, but we’ve got a sovereign debt crisis on our hand right now and we’ve got to be very careful that we don’t continue to do things that contribute to that fiscal insolvency path that we’re on,” said the Arkansas Republican.
The dollar amount for the projected gap is relatively small in the context of overall government funding. Lawmakers approved a $1.3 trillion “omnibus” spending bill in March that funds the government through September.
But with the House soon to depart on a five-week summer vacation, even minor setbacks on next year’s funding bills raise the prospect of another short-term, stopgap funding bill to keep the government running past September.
Amid the veterans funding dispute, House and Senate negotiators postponed an initial meeting last week in which they were supposed to start hammering out differences between joint packages of three spending bills.
Mr. Shelby said Tuesday he didn’t know when that could be rescheduled.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, vice chairman of the appropriations committee, says he’s prepared to offer an amendment that would allow Congress to pass additional discretionary spending, if necessary, to fill any gap in the veterans funding without cutting programs elsewhere.
“The president and everybody else has said they’re in favor of money for it, so I assume they’re going to keep their word,” said Mr. Leahy, Vermont Democrat. “I would assume President Trump would keep his word. He has said several times there’s going to be money for the veterans, so I assume he will keep his word and the money’ll be there.”
Any spin that the president doesn’t support funding for the program is false, according to an administration official.
“The administration supports care for veterans within the discretionary caps already in place and has provided a road map on how to do that in the 2019 budget,” the official said. “Congress must now do the same.”
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