McConnell, GOP senators support exempting VA health funds from budget caps

McConnell, GOP senators support exempting VA health funds from budget caps
© Greg Nash

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellLincoln Project offers list of GOP senators who 'protect' Trump in new ad State and local officials beg Congress to send more election funds ahead of November Teacher's union puts million behind ad demanding funding for schools preparing to reopen MORE (R-Ky.), Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard ShelbyRichard Craig ShelbyDemocrats sidestep budget deal by seeking 0B in emergency spending Fights over police reform, COVID-19 delay Senate appropriations markups Trump's push for major infrastructure bill faces GOP opposition MORE (R-Ala.) and top GOP senators say they've reached an agreement amongst themselves to support exempting a Veterans Affairs health care program from budget caps.

The agreement is the latest step toward a resolution on how to handle the growing cost of VA health care and whether or not it should be deemed as "emergency" funds, which would exempt it from the caps set under last year's two-year budget deal.

"It was my feeling that we should treat that as emergency spending ... and that was the consensus of the subcommittee chairs, the leader," Shelby told reporters Tuesday.

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Pressed if he was saying McConnell and the GOP subcommittee chairs supported exempting the funding related to the VA Mission Act — a 2018 law that expands veterans access to private doctors — from the budget caps, Shelby responded: "They're in line with my proposal to do that."

Shelby, McConnell and top Republicans on the Appropriations Committee met on Tuesday to discuss the fiscal 2021 government funding bills and how to address funding for VA health care.

Their decision doesn't resolve the issue. Shelby noted that he spoke with White House chief of staff Mark MeadowsMark Randall MeadowsThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Miami pauses reopenings as COVID-19 infections rise, schools nationally plot return Overnight Health Care: Trump downplaying of COVID-19 sparks new criticism of response Trump downplaying sparks new criticism of COVID-19 response MORE and is hoping to meet with President TrumpDonald John TrumpKimberly Guilfoyle reports being asymptomatic and 'feeling really pretty good' after COVID-19 diagnosis Biden says he will rejoin WHO on his first day in office Lincoln Project offers list of GOP senators who 'protect' Trump in new ad MORE next week to pitch him on making the VA funds "emergency" spending.

"We're in a discussion, a positive discussion on going down that road. We're not there yet," he said.

Overall nondefense spending for fiscal 2021, which includes the VA, was agreed to as part of a two-year budget deal. That means if senators include more money for the VA without changing the budget cap, they have to strip funding from other nondefense programs.

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That would have ramifications for the top-line spending figures for all 12 funding bills, known as 302 (b)s, which the Senate Appropriations Committee still needs to pass.

Sen. Roy BluntRoy Dean BluntState and local officials beg Congress to send more election funds ahead of November Clash looms over next coronavirus relief bill Senate Democrats urge Pompeo to ensure Americans living overseas can vote in November MORE (R-Mo.), a member of the committee and GOP leadership, said GOP senators had drafted the top-line spending figures but they weren't "as happy with them as we'd like to be," because of the potential impact the VA health care funding would have if it is included as part of the budget caps.

"it would certainly solve a lot of problems if it was considered an emergency, particularly if that's what the House is going to do," he said.

Shelby has been pushing to classify the VA spending as "emergency" funding, telling reporters late last week that he supported the idea. House Democrats are also expected to designate it as "emergency" funding in their government funding bills. 

Congress has until the end of September to pass the 12 fiscal 2021 government funding bills or a continuing resolution that would continue funding at the fiscal 2020 level.

Senate appropriators want to mark up 10 of the 12 bills in committee by the end of June, with Shelby telling The Hill late last week that the Department of Homeland Security and the military construction-VA bills were the two he was not planning to hold a committee hearing on.

Under that timeline, Shelby also wants to begin moving appropriations bills to the floor as soon as next month.

"We'd like to, but I said all of this is tentative at the moment. We've been discussing it amongst ourselves," Shelby said.