WASHINGTON — House appropriators released their omnibus budget bill on Wednesday without a proposed package of veterans reforms included, a missed opportunity that has lawmakers and veterans groups worried whether the ideas will ever move forward.
The $1.3 trillion spending package — which includes the full fiscal 2018 funding for the Department of Defense, Veterans Affairs and other federal agencies — must be passed by the end of the week to avoid another partial government shutdown. Officials released the overall spending parameters for the budget in last month, but worked out funding details for the massive measure in recent days.
The must-pass nature of the legislation made it a target for a host of special interest items, including the proposed VA reforms.
The package circulated among lawmakers and outside advocates called for an overhaul of VA community care programs — the White House’s top legislative priority for the department this year — along with an expansion of veteran caregiver benefits and a review of the VA system’s national footprint.
All three issues have been the center of contentious fights on Capitol Hill, and the compromise package was hailed by veterans groups in a letter to congressional leaders as a step that would “measurably improve the lives of millions of veterans today and in the future.”
Democrats and Republicans on the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee agreed to the plan, as did House Republican leaders. But House Democrats raised a host of objections to the idea in recent days, sidelining the possible reforms for now.
The community care changes are part of the department’s efforts to phase out the controversial VA Choice program, which allows veterans who meet certain criteria to receive care from private sector doctors at taxpayer expense.
Earlier in the day, VA Secretary David Shulkin testified that the Choice program is set to run out of money in early June, potentially disrupting medical plans for tens of thousands of veterans nationwide. He has pushed Congress for a solution that would ease eligibility restrictions and simplify all VA outside care programs into a single funding stream.
Getting that done as a stand alone will be more difficult, especially given the contentious behind-the-scenes negotiations between Republicans and Democrats in the House.
After the budget bill release, House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., said he was disappointed by the result, but added “that doesn’t change the fact that veterans and their caregivers need these reforms.
“I thank Chairman Isakson, Ranking Member Tester, the administration and Veterans Service Organizations for negotiating in good faith,” he said. “Our work continues.”
He noticeably did not reference House Democrats, who Republican blamed for blocking a deal over political issues. Party officials have hinted they may try to block the budget bill over a host of concerns, including immigration issues missing from the measure.
But Griffin Anderson, spokesman for the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee’s Democrats, said the decision to oppose the VA reforms deal came down to policy concerns, not politics.
He called the proposal too rushed and incomplete for the minority party to support. He said the community care overhaul plan still relied on arbitrary eligibility rules, the asset review plan would undermine VA infrastructure, and neither of those reforms had the promise of new appropriations with them.
“Similarly, the caregiver proposal, which fully expands access to all generations of veterans and is a top priority for us, wouldn’t see a single dollar,” he said. “Yes, the program would be authorized, but there would not be any money to fund this expansion and no clear way to provide that funding going forward.”
Republican officials blasted those criticisms as ridiculous. They noted that committee ranking member Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn., has previously offered identical legislative proposals on caregivers expansion and community care issues in the past.
“All these proposals have been considered by either the House or Senate committees through regular order,” said Tiffany Haverly, spokeswoman for Roe.
She dismissed the funding concerns and said Democrats have been inconsistent with their concerns over the asset review and outside care changes. She also noted that their Senate committee counterparts had signed on to the plan.
On Wednesday, before the official omnibus release, Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee ranking member Jon Tester, D-Mont., lamented the inability to reach a compromise.
“The negotiations with the omnibus, everybody was on the same sheet, including the White House,” he said. “Hopefully we can get his passed, because it’s the final piece of a puzzle to hold VA accountable for both VA care and choice care.
“I don’t know about the House. The bill we passed (in the Senate committee) is a good bill. And it has been held up by a few people, and we need to get over it.”
Veterans groups were similarly upset that a compromise could not be reached.
“The last few days have been disappointing working on this,” said Joe Chennelly, executive director at AMVETS. “This is a key opportunity to finally meet a number of key legislative needs for veterans of all eras … Now that these efforts and this opportunity seem to have been wasted, we are searching for a path forward.”
Carlos Fuentes, national legislative director for the Veterans of Foreign Wars, said his group is also worried failed reforms bid now makes future progress on the issues more difficult.
“We’re starting to hear that facilities are starting to run out of choice funds,” he said. “Veterans are starting to get impacted. We need to get something done and stop punting.”
Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., said he was also disappointed to miss out on including the reforms in the omnibus, but said he thinks the work done will have a positive result in coming weeks.
“I would have liked to get it in there, but the effort we’ve gone through has educated everyone on what a great job we’ve done to address three major concerns in the VA,” he said. “I think we’ll get it done.”
He intends to bring up the issues again in early April, after Congress’ upcoming spring break.
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.