- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 30, 2005

The Bush administration yesterday admitted that it badly miscalculated health care spending for veterans this year and agreed to send Congress an emergency spending request to make up a shortfall of at least $1 billion.

It was a reversal from just a day before, when Veterans Affairs Secretary Jim Nicholson said money could be transferred among accounts to make up the difference, and House Republicans, on a procedural vote, rejected Democrats’ attempt to add more money.

But with the Senate voting unanimously yesterday to add $1.5 billion to veterans health spending and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi promising to “make the issue so hot that today Republicans will reverse their position,” House Republican leaders said their members were getting “uncomfortable” with the department’s solution.

That left Mr. Nicholson with little choice but to agree to ask for more money.

He and House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Steve Buyer, Indiana Republican, announced the supplemental request at a joint press conference, and Mr. Buyer said he expects Mr. Nicholson to provide an exact amount today.

“Hopefully, they’ll work through the night and be able to give us a number,” Mr. Buyer said.

Democrats called it a major “I told you so” moment, since they had been pushing for more funding for months.

Those efforts included an attempt in April by Sen. Patty Murray, Washington Democrat, to add the money to the emergency war-spending bill. But Republicans, bolstered by a letter from the administration saying there was already enough money, defeated her amendment.

Yesterday, Senate Republicans said their switch should be seen as a slap to the White House.

“We were in error. Senator Murray was right,” said Sen. Rick Santorum, Pennsylvania Republican, who said the fact that top Republican senators sponsored one of the amendments to boost funding “sends a very loud and clear message to the administration that we’d like straight dealing” on veterans issues.

The Senate amendment, added to the interior and environment spending bill, would allocate $1.5 billion for veterans health care, to be made available immediately. Any amount not spent in fiscal year 2005, which ends in September, would carry over to fiscal year 2006, which also has an unspecified shortfall.

Mr. Buyer and other Republicans blamed bad budget practices. They said the 2005 figures were based on data from 2002, before the war in Iraq had begun.

House Republicans initially had backed Mr. Nicholson’s plan to shift money. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, Texas Republican, and Appropriations Committee Chairman Jerry Lewis, California Republican, told reporters Tuesday the diversion would take care of the matter.

But Democrats said Republicans should have known better.

“That excuse doesn’t even hold water,” said Rep. Chet Edwards, Texas Democrat, who has taken a leading role in the fight for the increases. “There’s a $1 billion shortfall and $300 to $400 million in a reserve fund to cover that shortfall.”

He said Mr. Nicholson planned to cover the rest of the shortfall by delaying capital improvements and some operational expenses, but that proved unacceptable to Congress.

Mr. Nicholson said the cost overruns were “a good problem” to have. He said it means the VA system is providing such good health care that more people are turning to it rather than using their own private insurance plans.

But part of the increase is due to more injuries to returning troops.

Despite the bipartisan vote in the Senate, the tone turned nasty.

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, criticized Mr. Nicholson for having no qualifications for being secretary other than having once been chairman of the Republican National Committee. Mr. Santorum rebuked Mr. Reid on the Senate floor, pointing to Mr. Nicholson’s years of military service.

Mr. Reid then corrected himself about Mr. Nicholson, but said he was not going to be “lectured about civility” by Mr. Santorum. He then entered Mr. Santorum’s previous voting record against veterans health care funding into the Congressional Record.

“Now with an election cycle upon us, he supports, under pressure, voting for veterans. Talk about crass politics,” Mr. Reid said.

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