The Department of Veterans Affairs would get an $18 billion budget bump next year under a plan released by House Republicans on Tuesday amid a knockdown, drag-out political fight over raising the U.S. debt ceiling.
The GOP bill would give the VA about $153 billion in discretionary funding in 2024, up from $135 billion that the department got this year -- and slightly above the $143 billion the Biden administration requested for next year.
The bill gives Republicans concrete numbers to point to as they rebut Biden administration accusations that their plans to slash overall government spending in 2024 would mean cuts to the VA and veteran services.
"House Republicans have repeatedly vowed that there will be no cuts to the care and benefits our veterans deserve, and the Fiscal Year 2024 Military Construction and Veterans Affairs bill delivers on that promise," House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Kay Granger, R-Texas; VA appropriations subcommittee Chairman John Carter, R-Texas; and House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Mike Bost, R-Ill., said in a joint statement.
"This bill sends a clear message: Our commitment to taking care of our nation's veterans will never waver," they added.
The release of the VA spending bill came hours before President Joe Biden and congressional leaders were scheduled to have a meeting about what's known as the debt ceiling Tuesday afternoon.
The debt ceiling, which is the amount of money the Treasury Department can borrow in order to pay the nation's bills, is expected to be reached as soon as June 1, at which point the U.S. could default on its debts for the first time.
The GOP and the Biden administration have been at odds over a bill House Republicans passed last month that would raise the debt ceiling in exchange for capping overall government spending in 2024 at 2022 levels.
The Biden administration has been arguing the GOP-proposed spending caps would mean a 22% cut to the VA, a number derived from the assumption that Pentagon funding would be spared from cuts while every other department would take an equal cut.
The claim infuriated Republicans, who insisted veterans funding would be safe from cuts while also threatening to retaliate against the VA over the messaging.
But still left unsaid by Republicans is exactly where they plan to find about $130 billion in cuts to government funding. Boosting VA funding and Pentagon funding, as Republicans have also said they want to do, would mean deep cuts to other government agencies that Democrats are unlikely to agree to, making it doubtful the VA spending plan released Tuesday is exactly what will become law.
Democrats claimed the GOP plan could, for example, short the funding for benefits meant for veterans sickened by exposure to toxic chemicals.
"The illusory increases Republicans claim here in fact breaks a bipartisan promise to protect those exposed to burn pits by severely underfunding the Toxic Exposures Fund," Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., the ranking member of the VA appropriations subcommittee, said in a statement. "It also deceptively hides the fact that much steeper cuts are in store for the housing, food and job assistance programs our veterans need."
The bill would put $5.5 billion into the Toxic Exposures Fund, which was created to pay for benefits granted by last year's PACT Act and is considered mandatory spending, which is spending that is typically on autopilot since it is required by prior law.
That's about $14.7 billion less than the VA requested for the Toxic Exposures Fund. The bill would cover the difference with discretionary spending, which is spending that is subject to annual approval by Congress and so is more at the mercy of political fights.
Republicans maintain the bill "fully funds costs identified in the president's request to address veterans affected by toxic exposures," according to a summary of the measure released by House Appropriations Committee Republicans.
The bill also includes Republican priorities such as a ban on funding to implement executive orders on diversity, equity and inclusion, and on funding that "promotes or advances" critical race theory, a term Republicans have applied generally to diversity training. Critical race theory is a discipline taught in graduate school about the intersection of racism and law.
The bill also zeros out funding for the VA's public affairs office "in response to the VA's inaccurate and politically motivated press releases making false claims about budget cuts," according to the Republican summary.
In addition to VA funding, the bill released Tuesday includes funding for military construction. The military construction portion of the bill would provide about $18 billion for the Pentagon, which is about $1 billion less than provided last year but about $1 billion more than the Biden administration requested for this year.
Republicans said the bill would make "investments in the Pacific theater, barracks and other quality-of-life projects," while Democrats groused that it does not include dedicated funding to clean up chemicals known as PFAS, prepare bases for climate change, or increase oversight of privatized military housing.
The House Appropriations Committee's VA and military construction subcommittee is scheduled to debate the bill Wednesday morning.
-- Rebecca Kheel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @reporterkheel.