Republicans mull options on filling VA budget shortfall

House Republicans might include a stand-alone bill to address the funding shortfall for veterans' health services, while the Senate is prepared to add $1.5 billion as early as Wednesday to an unrelated $26.3 billion fiscal 2006 Interior appropriations bill.

Veterans Affairs Secretary James Nicholson told House and Senate lawmakers at separate hearings Tuesday that the agency would have enough money through internal accounting moves to cover gaps in funding this year.

Nicholson said that might create a need for an additional $1.5 billion to carry the department through fiscal 2006, which prompted the Senate Republicans' amendment to the Interior bill from Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Larry Craig, R-Idaho, and others.

Initial indications are that the House might scale back that figure, suspecting that in the rush to provide answers to angry lawmakers, the VA might have overstated the extent of its cash flow problem. "We want solutions, not just subsidies," a House Republican aide said.

Top House GOP lawmakers said no final decision has been made, but did not rule out bringing up a stand-alone bill this week to address the shortfall.

"That hasn't been communicated to me yet," House Appropriations Committee Chairman Jerry Lewis, R-Calif., said, adding a final figure had not been settled on.

House Majority Whip Roy Blunt, R-Mo., said a stand-alone bill was a possibility once the Office of Management and Budget tallies a fiscal 2006 budget amendment.

Senate votes, including on competing Democratic versions, might come Wednesday. Craig, who discussed his amendment with OMB, said the $1.5 billion "should provide the VA with more than enough to backfill the VA's current needs under the 2005 budget and carry over more money into 2006."

As drafted, the funds would become available upon enactment of the bill and would not require an adjustment to the $843 billion 2006 discretionary spending cap.

Lawmakers expect to complete work on the Interior appropriations bill possibly before the August recess, making it an attractive vehicle to speed the extra money to depleted VA accounts. House aides did not rule that out as an option either, but said they were waiting for more information before making a funding determination.

All of the maneuvering was taking place against the backdrop of President Bush's primetime Iraq speech Tuesday night, and in deciding to offer their own plan, Senate GOP leaders were clearly sensitive to the drumbeat of Democratic attacks on the White House for its handling of veterans' services.

Senate Democrats offered their own $1.42 billion healthcare amendment to the Interior bill, and Craig said he had considered adding even more funds to his amendment to make up for funds taken from equipment and maintenance accounts to plug the gap in medical services, as in the Democratic version.

"Everybody tries to outdo each other with veterans because everybody tries to look favorable to veterans," Craig said. "Has there been a little gamesmanship around here? Yes. But that's not unusual around here. The reality is, it has always been bipartisan," he added, saying he reached out to Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and other Democrats on the issue.

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