Lawmakers push advanced funding for VA

The leaders of the House and Senate Veterans Affairs Committee made a new push Wednesday to fund the Department of Veterans Affairs in advance.

The effort is being made on the heels of the government shutdown, where some VA workers were furloughed and benefits checks were threatened had the shutdown had lasted longer.

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The VA’s healthcare programs, which make up the majority of the agency's budget, are already funded through advanced appropriations, thanks to a law passed in 2009. Now the House and Senate panels want to fund the 14 percent of the VA that wasn’t covered by that law, as well as VA’s mandatory spending.

“As we saw earlier this month in the event of a prolonged shutdown, VA would not have been able to issue disability compensation, pension payments or education benefits,” said Senate Veterans Affairs Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). “That outcome would have been reprehensible.”

Flanked by several veterans groups on a drizzly Wednesday morning, the VA committee leaders said they would try to get votes on their legislation this year.

House Veterans Affairs Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) acknowledged that it would be an uphill climb, requiring the support of appropriators as well as House leadership.

Miller said he had spoken to the speaker’s office about the bill, and he said they want to better understand what the effects would be.

“We have some educating to do, but they have not said that it’s impossible to bring this bill to fruition,” Miller told reporters after the press conference.

“The advanced funding that took place several years ago didn’t happen overnight either. But we now have proof it works,” he said.

The VA also declined to endorse the plan. 

"Rather than focusing on expanding advance appropriations, the best way to care for veterans is for Congress to provide full funding for VA and the entire government each year," the agency said in a statement.

Miller said the VA's stance was a political one. 

"If they want to be political about it, that’s their choice," he said. "They politicized the shutdown.”

During the 16-day government shutdown this month, veterans and veterans issues were frequently invoked in the political fighting, from the initial closure of the World War II Memorial to the threat of veterans not receiving their benefits checks.

The House passed a mini-funding bill to fund the VA, which then prompted criticisms that the Senate had not. One Republican openly questioned whether Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) disliked veterans.

Miller said that by passing their advanced appropriations bill, which would fund the VA one year in advance, veterans would be taken out of the equation should a future shutdown occur.

“We don’t want veterans to be able to be used as political pawns in the discussion,” he said. “We need to all agree to take veterans and their earned benefits off the table.”

— This story was updated at 2:22 p.m.