Defense panels approve $300M for wounded troops care

Congressional defense committees have given the Pentagon the green light to spend $300 million on medical equipment and research projects to treat wounded troops. 

The congressional nod came at the last minute because Maryland and Virginia lawmakers had hoped to use the funds to avert congested traffic in Southern Maryland and Northern Virginia. 

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The Pentagon had worked with the two state delegations in that effort, but it had also asked for approval to spend the funds on medical equipment and research projects if the Maryland-Virginia effort failed.

That approval was granted Sept. 30 after efforts to include the Maryland and Virginia lawmakers’ provision in a continuing resolution funding the government was unsuccessful. 

Sept. 30 was the last day the Pentagon could have reallocated the money. The new fiscal year starts Oct. 1, and even though the government is funded at fiscal year 2010 levels, it is considered a new year and the Pentagon could no longer reallocate the money for other uses without permission from Congress. 

The Maryland and Virginia delegations are now eyeing negotiations over the 2011 Pentagon-spending bill for their project. Once again, the lawmakers likely will face opposition from the Senate, particularly from Republican leaders.

Democratic Reps. Jim Moran (Va.) and Chris Van Hollen (Md.), as well as Democratic Sens. Barbara Mikulski (Md.) and Ben Cardin (D-Md.), have been fighting for almost a year to secure funds to widen roads and intersections near Bethesda Naval Hospital and Fort Belvoir, Va.

Their intent is to help the Washington suburbs cope with the thousands of workers and wounded veterans traveling to those hospitals as a result of the most recent base realignment and closure (BRAC) effort. As part of the effort, the Walter Reed Army Medical Center will be closed and folded into the Bethesda hospital. An additional 12,000 employees would also be traveling into Fort Belvoir each day.

The fight originated with a technical snafu. 

In a rare move, funds for the Maryland and Virginia road projects were “airdropped” into the 2010 defense appropriations bill during conference negotiations after neither chamber included money in its version of the bill. 

But there was a problem: The $300 million was allotted for the Defense Health Affairs account, which does not have the statutory authority to spend the money on transportation infrastructure. 

Senior Pentagon officials worked closely with lawmakers on language in the CR that would have allowed the $300 million to be transferred to the Office of Economic Adjustment, according to a source familiar with the issue. Because the money was allocated in the wrong account, the Pentagon had not been able to spend it.

While officials in the Pentagon were trying to help the politicians allocate the money for the traffic abatement projects, in August they also decided to ask Congress for permission to spend the $300 million for research and medical equipment to treat wounded troops if the money could not be reallocated for transportation use. 

The Washington-area lawmakers face a renewed battle when they return from the November elections over the adoption of the 2011 Pentagon-spending bill. This time around, the money has been intended directly for the Office of Economic Adjustment.  

The lawmakers have expressed a sense of urgency for the $300 million because the actions mandated by the BRAC round have to be completed by September 2011.