House appropriators approve VA-HUD spending bill

After rejecting Bush administration proposals to make some veterans pay an annual enrollment fee for health insurance and a higher co-payment for prescription drugs, the House Appropriations Committee Monday approved the $90 billion fiscal 2004 VA-HUD bill by voice vote.

Chairman Bill Young, R-Fla., said he hoped to get the bill on the floor Friday, so it could pass the House before members go on recess at the end of the week.

Rep. Virgil Goode, R-Va., offered the amendment, which calls for eliminating the $250 annual enrollment fee that Category Seven and Eight veterans-those who do not have service-related illnesses or injuries, or who are not impoverished-would have had to pay, and nixing the proposal to increase their co-payment from $7 to $15. Goode used a $264 million cut to the Veterans Health Administration's medical administration account to offset the cost of his amendment, which passed by voice vote. The medical administration account funds the agency's management and administrative expenses, including those associated with operating the VHA headquarters, all information technology hardware and software, legal services, billing and coding acitivities, and procurement.

Rep. Chet Edwards, D-Texas, presented a substitute to Goode's amendment that also called for eliminating the enrollment fee and the increased co-payment, but would have offset the costs by cutting 1.5 percent of the new round of tax cuts going to people who make more than $1 million a year. His amendment failed by a straight party-line vote of 25-31.

The VA-HUD bill itself represents an increase over both the president's request of $89.4 billion and the fiscal 2003 enacted level of $87.1 billion. It would provide a total of $27.2 billion to the VA-$1.4 billion more than in FY03-including $4 billion for VA medical facilities and $408 million, or $11 billion more than in fiscal 2003, for veteran's medical and prosthetic research.

The bill would direct $37 billion, or $942 million over fiscal 2003 and $98 million over the president's request, to the Department of Housing and Urban Development. The Section 8 vouchers program would receive $12.1 billion, allowing it to fully fund the renewal of all authorized vouchers. This amount is $810 million more than fiscal 2003 and exceeds the administration's request by $205 million.

Among the independent agencies funded by the VA-HUD bill, the Environmental Protection Agency would get $8 billion ($375 million more than Bush requested but $74 million less than fiscal 2003), the troubled Americorps program would get $480 million ($96 million more than fiscal 2003 but $118 million less than the president wanted), the National Science Foundation $5.6 billion ($329 million over fiscal 2003 and $158 million over the administration request) and NASA $15.5 billion (a $201 million increase over fiscal 2003 and $158 million over the president's request).

But the panel deferred on funding the International Space Station, the Space Shuttle program, the Orbital Space Plane program and next generation launch technology until the report by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board is released. The committee will use the report and NASA's response as the basis for final action on the fiscal 2004 NASA budget.

Despite widespread praise of Subcommittee Chairman James Walsh, R-N.Y., for doing the best job he could with the allocation he was given, full committee ranking member David Obey, D-Wis., said he could not support the bill. Obey lamented what he considered weak funding levels for the EPA's state revolving fund program to reduce water pollution, the cut in the HOPE VI program for revitalizing dilapidated public housing, from $570 million in fiscal 2003 to $50 million for fiscal 2004. The White House did not request any funds for this account.

"It is my job to blow the whistle," Obey said, "not that anybody's going to hear it."

In the only other recorded vote of the markup, the committee shot down, on a party-line vote of 26-32,an Edwards amendment to increase funding for veterans' programs by $2.2 billion, to VA medical care for all categories of veterans, offset by cutting the tax cuts for taxpayers making more than $1 million a year by 12.5 percent.

The committee also acted on the following amendments:

  • A Walsh manager's amendment containing technical changes to the bill and additional report language, which was adopted by voice vote.
  • An amendment by Rep. Alan Mollohan, D-W.Va., which was inadvertently left out of the manager's amendment, to increase funding for the National Technology Transfer Center and the Highlands Action Program, was approved by voice vote.
  • An amendment by Rep. John Culberson, R-Texas, to rename a local VA hospital passed by voice vote.
  • An amendment by Rep. Maurice Hinchey, D-N.Y., to add report language directing EPA's Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry to help the New York State Department of Health with public health activities related to potential exposure to volatile organic compounds in the Village of Endicott, N.Y. It was cleared by voice vote.
  • An amendment by Rep. George Nethercutt, R-Wash., to add report language directing EPA to work with authorities in Washington and Idaho in cleaning up the Coeur d'Alene basin. It passed by voice vote.
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