Rhetorical firefight escalates over veterans spending

A war of words over veterans spending intensified Monday, as Democrats went on offense after taking repeated hits from the GOP in recent days for not moving ahead on a $109.2 billion measure funding military construction and veterans' benefits.

Democrats pointed out that the last time a veterans spending bill was approved before the end of the fiscal year was during the Clinton administration in fiscal 1997, when the Veterans Affairs Department was funded under the former VA-Housing and Urban Development measure.

Last year, the VA budget did not pass until Democrats enacted a continuing resolution this February for the entire fiscal year, and during President Bush's tenure, the earliest Congress has sent him a final bill was Nov. 26.

In each of fiscal 2003-2005, veterans spending was included as part of an omnibus appropriations package -- the earliest being Dec. 8 -- which Republicans now criticize Democrats for moving toward.

Earlier Monday, House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, had criticized House Democrats for not naming conferees on the Military Construction-VA bill, which he called "inexcusable" and evidence the majority was holding it back "as a vehicle for more pork."

"Mr. Boehner seems to have conveniently forgotten that last year, under his leadership, the Congress let down veterans and our troops by never passing the VA-Military Construction bill," replied House Military Construction-VA Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Chet Edwards, D-Texas.

A Boehner spokesman said "ignoring basic facts is becoming an all-too-common tack for House Democrats" and laid last year's mess at the feet of the then-Senate leadership, as the House had passed its version.

"This year the burden is on House Democrats, and their unwillingness to move forward represents a failure of leadership and demonstrates their inability to govern," he said.

Both chambers have passed the measure, and Bush has indicated he would sign it despite a price tag $4 billion above his request.

Bush has also demanded corresponding offsets in other areas of the budget, and Democrats have been reluctant to send him the bill and put domestic programs at risk.

The Senate has already appointed conferees. But the House generally does not name conferees until right before a formal conference is ready to convene because the minority party can use that opportunity to offer procedural motions that are political in nature.

Edwards said informal conference negotiations have already begun and that it is his "hope" that Democratic leaders would send Bush the bill by Veterans Day, Nov. 11.

But senior Democratic aides said there was not yet a decision on timing or whether the measure would become part of a larger package.

House Appropriations ranking member Jerry Lewis, R-Calif., argued that the delays in getting the bill signed mean the VA cannot begin programs such as 450 claims processing units, addition of clinics and improvement of existing facilities.

Democrats note that the White House and GOP leaders in recent years fought efforts to add spending on veterans programs, even stripping former House Veterans Affairs Chairman Christopher Smith, R-N.J., of his chairmanship in 2005 after he had regularly spoken out against Republican budgets for not including more veterans funds.

Edwards added that "under Democratic leadership in Congress this year, we will pass the largest increase in veterans healthcare funding in the 77-year history of the Veterans Administration."

Veterans are a crucial voting bloc for both parties, and earlier this year Bush touted his budget's increase as the largest in the agency's history. As veterans programs remain mired in the larger budget fight, Bush and Democratic leaders traded barbs over delays in passing any of the fiscal 2008 appropriations bills.

In a speech in Rogers, Ark., Bush reiterated his pledge to veto Democratic spending bills, which are, overall, $23 billion above his $933 billion discretionary budget request.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., shot back that "the worst kept secret in Washington this fall" is that Bush has taken a newfound hard line on spending "in a vain attempt to establish his bona fides with his conservative base."

Bush signed into law farm, highway and prescription drug legislation, as well as a number of appropriations bills that exceeded his requests when Republicans were in control.

The House has passed all 12 fiscal 2008 appropriations bills.

The Senate was moving toward passage Monday of its sixth, a $55 billion Commerce-Justice-Science measure.

Senate Commerce-Justice-Science Appropriations Subcommittee Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., told colleagues it was "time to fish or cut bait" if they wanted to offer amendments.

Following passage of the C-J-S measure, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said he would keep the chamber in session through the weekend if necessary to complete work on the $150 billion Labor-Health and Human Services bill, as Senate Labor-HHS Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Tom Harkin, D-Iowa -- also chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee -- needs to turn his attention to next week's farm bill markup.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., pledged "significant cooperation on our end" in working through the bills, calling them "the basic work of government and we need to try and complete it as rapidly as possible."

Ben Schneider contributed to this report.

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