A law enacted in 1997 may quash a congressional budget blueprint to increase the Department of Veterans Affairs' healthcare allotment by up to 17.9% in federal fiscal 2000.
The proposal contrasts with President Clinton's budget proposal, which would maintain the VA's government allotment from 1999.
For 2000, the House increased the VA's healthcare budget by $1.1 billion, to $18.4 billion, while the Senate added another $2 billion to that. Both bills had included a $1.1 billion increase, but an amendment approved 99-0 on the Senate floor added the extra $2 billion, for a $3.1 billion total.
The amendment stipulates that the budget increase be paid for by cuts in the budgets of other nondefense programs.
Veterans groups and pro-veterans legislators hailed the effort to boost the VA healthcare budget.
The VA operates 172 hospitals and more than 800 other healthcare facilities, organized into 22 regional networks. It employs about 180,000 full-time workers, including 11,000 physicians, and serves more than 3 million veterans per year.
House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Bob Stump (R-Ariz.) said that when House and Senate leaders draft a compromise budget resolution, the difference between the two bills could lead to a greater increase in funding than the House requested.
"I'm encouraged by the fact that the Senate budget includes even more for veterans," Stump said in a written statement. "That makes it possible to build on what we did in the House."
"The closer we get to the Senate (budget), the better (off) the veterans will be," said Richard Wannemacher, associate national legislative director for Disabled American Veterans.
But the victory may be short-lived. Spending limits imposed under the federal Balanced Budget Act of 1997 make it difficult for the VA to get more money, as Congress would have to offset that spending with budget cuts elsewhere.
Veterans groups are urging that spending limits be lifted and that some of the projected $117.3 billion federal budget surplus in 2000 be used to fund part of the spending increases.