- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 19, 2014

Budget experts called Thursday for lawmakers to find an offset for the Veterans Affairs bill when they begin conference negotiations this week.

The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget sent a letter to the conferees saying that the need to keep promises to the nation’s veterans shouldn’t relieve members of the need to be fiscally responsible and pay for the changes.

“National priorities must be funded responsibly to provide a sustainable base for that commitment,” Maya MacGuineas, CRFB president, said in the letter.

“Adding new costs to the nation’s credit card by providing unlimited funds or designating costs as ‘emergency’ would violate basic principles of fiscal responsibility and would demonstrate to veterans that Congress is unwilling to make difficult choices to provide them the care they deserve.”

Both the House and Senate passed legislation last week to let vets seek care outside the VA if they experienced long wait times or far commutes to VA facilities. The legislation would also give the next VA secretary more power to fire top executives for poor job performance.

The Congressional Budget Office estimated that the changes could cost at least $35 billion, though that could increase to $50 billion a year if the changes spur more veterans to sign up for VA health care.

CRFB suggested several ways to find the cost savings needed to cover the changes proposed to the VA, including making working-age military retirees ineligible for TRICARE Prime, preventing disabled vets from receiving retirement pay and disability at the same time, and ending VA services for veterans with conditions not related to their military service.

The House voted earlier this week to go to conference and iron out differences between the two bills to send a final version to the president. Some top Republicans, however, say Congress will likely pass the bills regardless of cost because of how bad the crisis at the VA has become, with 57,000 veterans waiting more than 90 days for an initial appointment.

The conference members include Sen. Bernard Sanders, Vermont independent and Senate Veterans Affairs Committee chairman, and Sen. Richard Burr, North Carolina Republican and ranking member. It also includes the leaders of the House Veterans Affairs Committee: Rep. Jeff Miller, Florida Republican and chairman, and Rep. Michael Michaud, Maine Democrat and ranking member.

Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican who worked on the Senate legislation with Mr. Sanders, will also be one of the negotiators.

Other named conferees who received the letter are: Democratic Sens. Mark Begich of Alaska, Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Maizie Hirono of Hawaii, Patty Murray of Washington, Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, Jon Tester of Montana, and Republican Sens. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, Johnny Isakson of Georgia, Mike Johanns of Nebraska, and Marco Rubio of Florida Republican.

In the House, conference members include: Democratic Reps. Corrine Brown of Florida, Julia Brownley of Florida, Ann Kirkpatrick of Arizona, Mark Takano of California, Tim Walz of Minnesota, and GOP Reps. Dan Benishek of Michigan, Mike Coffman of Colorado, Bill Flores of Texas, Doug Lamborn or Colorado, Phil Roe of Tennessee, Jackie Walorski of Indiana, and Brad Wenstrup of Ohio.