Lawmakers are not above using veterans as pawns in their partisan fight over government funding.
On Tuesday, the House of Representatives failed to get the two-thirds majority required to pass an expedited bill that would fully fund the Veterans Affairs Department during the partial shutdown of the federal government.
The vote was 264-164, with 231 Republicans and 33 Democrats voting for continued VA funding while 164 Democrats voted against the measure, HJ Res 72.
Rep Jeff Miller, R-Fla., House Veterans’ Affairs Committee chairman, blamed Democrats for defeating the measure. “House Democrats chose to put politics before the needs of America’s veterans and their loved ones,” he said. “Our veterans have already gone above and beyond for our nation. The last thing they deserve is for the country they courageously defended to abandon them. It’s unfortunate that some in Congress seem to be fighting to ensure that happens.”
Rep. Sanford Bishop, D-Ga., co-chairman of the House Military Family Caucus and ranking Democrat on the appropriations subcommittee responsible for veterans’ funding, said he was “very, very saddened” that Republicans would “hide behind the garment of sacrifice” for veterans in a political fight over funding.
The bill, Bishop said, “is really a fraud,” because it does not fully fund VA and would do nothing about the rest of the federal government.
“As members of Congress, we do not have the luxury to pick and chose which parts of the federal government we want to fund. It is our responsibility under the Constitution to fund the entire federal government,” Bishop said.
Veterans want VA programs fully funded but don’t like being used as pawns in the political fight, said Joe Davis, spokesman for Veterans of Foreign Wars, the nation’s largest organization for combat veterans.
“The VA needs to be fully funded, not piecemealed and not used as leverage,” Davis said.
The House of Representatives passed a full-year VA funding bill, HR 2216, on June 4 and has been waiting for the Senate to catch up so negotiations can begin on a final compromise measure. The Senate Appropriations Committee approved its version of the bill on June 20 but it has not yet come up for debate on the Senate floor.
After the midnight Monday government shutdown when funding for federal agencies ran out, a new House strategy for trying to initiate budget negotiations has been to pass separate funding measures to reopen parts of the federal government. This has not worked, as the House failed to pass funding for veterans’ benefits, national park operations and the District of Columbia. The White House also issued a veto threat over any stand-alone appropriations bills.
In the short term, 95 percent of VA employees are working, with health care and benefits programs mostly operating as usual.
However, VA officials have warned an extended government shutdown could hurt. While health care programs are largely unaffected, benefits programs could suffer if the lapse in funding extends into late October as money runs out to pay benefits and to keep administrative and claims processors at work.
“Veterans should not have to choose between having their claims processes and their grandchildren educated. Their family members should be able to receive their medical treatments and enjoy our national treasures,” said Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., the House assistant Democratic leader, who accused House Republicans of “using our patriotic heroes as pawns in their petty, partisan, political game.”
Republican supporters who blame Senate Democrats for the government shutdown said they were just trying to do the right thing.
Rep. John Culberson, R-Texas, chairman of the House appropriations subcommittee responsible for veterans funding, said he view veterans programs as “an obvious area of agreement” between the political parties and said the failed bill was an effort to “absolutely guarantee that there is no interruption.”
Kevin Smith, a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said the veto threat shows what President Obama thinks about veterans. “The president can’t continue to complain about the impact of his government shutdown on veterans while pledging to veto a bill to help them,” Smith said.
Smith said Congress and the Clinton administration agreed in 1995 on a bill that ensured veterans programs were not harmed by what became a 21-day government shutdown. “Nearly two decades later, President Obama and House Democrats have made the political choice to turn their backs on veterans,” Smith said.
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