House OKs cash for veterans

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Democrats celebrated a rare Capitol Hill victory on military affairs yesterday, crowing over having forced House Republicans to rush to pass an emergency spending bill for a $1 billion shortfall in veterans health care coverage.

“We said a year ago, and five months ago, and two months ago this budget was going to provide a shortfall for funding,” said Rep. Chet Edwards, Texas Democrat, who led his party’s efforts on the issue.

And House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, who on Wednesday promised to make the issue “too hot” for Republicans to ignore, said Republicans had to be forced to support veterans.

“Time after time, Democrats have put forward proposals to increase funding for our veterans,” she said. “And time after time, Republicans have voted them down. We have had straight party-line votes.”

After first saying the shortfall could be handled by shifting funds, the Bush administration yesterday sent up an emergency spending request for $975 million. The House passed the bill 419-0 last night, with 227 Republicans, 191 Democrats and one independent making up the unanimous vote.

Asked what changed, Rep. James P. Moran, Virginia Democrat, was blunt: “Politics.”

He said Republicans simply became scared.

“Members were coming up to their leadership and saying, ‘What are you doing to us? We’ve got July 4 coming up, and we’re going to go home and say to the veterans, “We love you, but sorry” ‘?” Mr. Moran said.

The funding still faces a fight for final passage. Senators voted unanimously to add $1.5 billion for veterans health care to another spending bill earlier this week, and yesterday called on the House to pass a bill at that level. House Democrats tried but failed on a procedural vote to match the Senate’s level of funding.

The Bush administration defended the new request as the best estimate of what is needed in fiscal year 2005, which runs through September.

Office of Management and Budget director Joshua B. Bolten said initial estimates had been based on a 2.3 percent estimate increase in 2005, while the actual increase appears to be 5.2 percent.

The spending request was a complete switch. On Tuesday, administration officials and House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, Texas Republican, said the problem could be taken care of by shifting funds and delaying capital projects.

Yesterday, Mr. DeLay said they have since realized that was flawed.

“Looking into it and how to solve the problem, it was obvious to us that just slipping around monies creates a bigger price tag for ‘06, and we’re trying to stay within the budget for ‘06,” he said.

He also said Republicans handled the situation responsibly.

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