By Jeremy Herb - 10/09/13 02:53 PM EDT
Payments to 3.8 million veterans will stop if the government shutdown drags into November, Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki said Wednesday.
A prolonged shutdown could also halt pension payments to 315,000 veterans and more than 200,000 surviving spouses, and benefits under the GI Bill would stop for 500,000 veterans and service members.
The progress that the Department of Veterans Affairs has made on the disability claims backlog has also stalled, Shinseki said, due to the end of mandatory overtime. Since the shutdown began last week the backlog has increased by 2,000 claims, and the VA furloughed 7,800 Veterans Benefits Administration employees Tuesday.
“We’ve lost ground we fought hard to take,” Shinseki said at a House Veterans Affairs hearing Wednesday.
Veterans issues have frequently been raised by lawmakers during the political fighting over the shutdown since it began last week.
House Republicans have passed a bill to fund the VA, but it was rejected by Senate Democrats, who argue the GOP should agree to fully open the government and not just the parts it likes.
The hearing took a partisan turn when Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-Kan.) suggested that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) doesn’t like veterans because he hasn’t allowed votes on bills to fund the VA.
“Do you think Sen. Reid doesn’t like our veterans or the VA in particular?” Huelskamp asked Shinseki. “For 105 days now, Sen. Harry Reid has refused to bring the VA appropriations bill to a vote in the US Senate.”
His suggestion drew a rebuke from Rep. Tim Walz (D-Minn.), who called on Huelskamp to apologize.
“That’s beneath this Congress and certainly beneath this committee to question a commitment to veterans,” Walz said.
Shineski answered Huelskamp’s question directly, saying that Reid “very highly values veterans.”
“As to why we are unable, Congress is unable, to do its business, I will leave that to the members to discuss,” Shinseki said.
“You mention Congress, but it is an issue in the U.S. Senate,” Huelskamp responded.
House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) said that veterans should be taken out of the shutdown equation. He urged the VA to support a bill that he and ranking member Mike Michaud (D-Maine) proposed to fund the entire VA budget a year in advance. VA health programs are already funded a year in advance.
“Last July, we held a hearing on a bill the ranking member and I introduced that proposed to advance fund the entire VA discretionary budget,” Miller said. “The administration declined to take a position on the bill, saying, instead, it needed to conduct a review first. It is obvious that no review is necessary given where we are today.”
Shinseki said that the House’s piecemeal funding approach was not the best one and urged Congress to pass a full government funding measure.
“There are those who have suggested a piecemeal approach, to pick and choose which parts of the government to fund. This is not the best solution for our veterans or our nation,” Shinseki said.
Michaud said there were two ways to get the VA funded, either the House could pass a continuing resolution (CR) for the full government or the Senate could pass the VA's appropriations bill.
"I don't care which one we choose, as long as we get one," he said.
— This story was updated at 12:14 p.m.