- The Washington Times - Friday, September 7, 2007


The Senate yesterday brushed past Bush administration protests and passed legislation containing big budget increases for medical care for veterans.

The Senate approved the Department of Veterans Affairs budget bill by a 92-1 vote, with conservative Sen. Jim DeMint, South Carolina Republican, casting the sole “nay” vote. The overwhelming margin illustrated why the White House backed away from a veto threat issued in May and signaled that President Bush would sign the bill, even though it breaks his budget by $4 billion.

The bill, which also provides huge budget increases for construction at U.S. military bases, is only the second of the 12 annual spending bills for the budget year beginning Oct. 1 to pass the Senate.

It’s also the only bill exceeding Mr. Bush’s budget requests not laboring under a veto threat. As such, it’s a potential vehicle to carry other spending bills to either evade presidential vetoes or force Mr. Bush’s Republican allies in Congress to cast politically difficult votes.

The bill rewards the VA with an almost 10 percent budget increase of $3.2 billion for its health care accounts next year — on top of $1.3 billion added for health care to the Iraq funding bill passed in May.

The bill adds $395 million to Mr. Bush’s already whopping $8.2 billion increase for construction projects at military bases and other Defense Department facilities, including domestic bases that are being expanded to accept troops now stationed in Germany and South Korea.

Overall, the measure provides $65 billion in funds provided at lawmakers’ discretion, 7 percent more than requested by Mr. Bush, and $41 billion in veterans disability benefits whose formulas are set by other statutes.

The White House has been on the defensive on veterans issues since greatly underestimating medical care costs two years ago. Revelations of substandard conditions for wounded soldiers at Walter Reed Army Medical Center — even though it’s not a VA facility — and complaints of delays in processing VA benefit applications have fueled the pressure.

As casualties from Iraq mount, particularly those with post-traumatic stress disorder and expensive-to-treat brain injuries, Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill compete to pour money into the VA.

Mr. Bush requested a 2 percent increase over current veterans health care spending levels.

The measure also funds popular military construction projects, facilities that will serve swelling Army, Marine Corps and National Guard ranks. The military is expected to increase by 92,000 troops over five years.

Most such projects are requested by the Pentagon, but senators added plenty of their own, including a “community activity center” at Malmstrom Air Force Base, requested by Sen. Max Baucus and Sen. Jon Tester, both Montana Democrats.

Mr. Bush and his allies on Capitol Hill have attacked Democrats for spending too much money during the current appropriations round.

Before passing the measure, senators voted 76-15 to add $100 million in unrelated funding to help the cities of Minneapolis and Denver host next year’s political conventions. Equal funding to pay for added security was awarded to the host cities of the 2004 conventions four years ago.

The bill now goes to conference to work out differences with the House version of the bill.

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