Congressional lawmakers canceled their first public conference over several spending bills at the last minute Thursday because they couldn’t agree on whether or not to cross budget limits to extend additional health care benefits to veterans.
“Do we break the caps? Do we prorate everything else? Do we cut other veterans programs to fund this? We got a shortfall, and we got to work it out. And we’re not there yet,” Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard Shelby told reporters Thursday, according to Politico.
The private health care program would allow qualified veterans to use taxpayer dollars on private doctors and hospitals in a convenient location to them if Veterans Affairs professionals are too far away from their location, according to Military Benefits.
The program, known as the Veterans Choice Program or VA Choice, officially ended at the end of May, when President Donald Trump signed the VA Mission Act that will expand long-term solutions to veterans who have issues accessing health care in proximity to them. Still, the government continues to fund VA Choice until the replacement program begins.
Congress will need to approve $1.6 billion for fiscal year 2019, in addition to $18.2 billion until 2021, to fully fund both programs, according to Politico.
Conservative lawmakers oppose the over-budget spending for these veterans programs, but postponed Thursday’s meeting in an effort to avoid having to vote on the proposed amendments, Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy told Politico on Thursday.
“You don’t go to a veterans assembly and say, ‘We’re not going to help the veterans,’” Leahy said.
The budgeting issues arose in June when Congress passed a bill that made funding for community care services discretionary rather than mandatory. In order to make up for that, Congress would need to skim millions of dollars worth of funds from other programs to fund the veteran’s health care programs, a move Democrats are trying hard to resist, according to Politico.
Still, House lawmakers passed the veteran’s spending bill in June, which allots $3 billion to fund the program through the end of 2019. They also reassigned $1.1 billion from the House’s funding bill for the Department of Homeland Security to the veterans initiative to make up for the discretionary funding gap but refuse to go beyond that budget cap, which explains the contention between Democrats and Republicans on the issue.
House Speaker Paul Ryan singled out the Senate spending bill, saying it “neglected” to fund the VA program despite the House’s contribution, in a statement to Politico.
“Democrats are scrambling to cover up the fact they have not kept their promises as the House did,” Ryan said to Politico.
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