Washington — Promotion of the Veterans Administration to a full Cabinet-level department seemed a sure thing after President Reagan endorsed the idea last month. But negative publicity and skeptical senators have since thrown roadblocks in front of the veterans' juggernaut. Key Senate hearings on the subject won't be held until late February.
Vet groups and their congressional allies had pressed for much quicker action, to take advantage of the burst of political momentum.
``Right now this is still a good bet to pass. But the longer it sits there and the more people ask questions about it'' the more uncertain its future becomes, says a congressional aide who works on the issue.
Still to be examined, say congressional sources, are such questions as whether there should be a cap on VA spending, how many political appointees the new department might have, and what lessons can be drawn from the creation of the Departments of Energy and Education.
``Some of the momentum has been taken off,'' says another congressional aide. ``Instead of a boil, it's now on a low simmer.''
The Veterans Administration was born in 1930, when President Herbert Hoover signed an order establishing it as an independent agency within the executive branch.
From their solemn beige headquarters across Lafayette Square from the White House, VA officials run a huge disability compensation and pension program. They administer the nation's largest health-care system, a home-loan assistance program, and US national cemeteries.
The idea of elevating the VA to Cabinet status has been kicking around Washington almost since the agency's founding. Bills to that effect have been introduced in the last 17 Congresses.
Proponents say the VA deserves to sit at the Cabinet table because it is one of the largest components of the federal government. The 1987 VA budget of $27 billion was bigger than that of 10 Cabinet-level departments. Only the Department of Defense employs more people.
VA programs affect 27 million veterans and 51 million dependents. A constituency of that size deserves a voice in White House inner councils, proponents of promotion say. Elevation ``would ensure that veterans' interests will continue to be given thorough and appropriate attention and voice at the highest levels of government,'' VA chief Thomas Turnage said before Congress this month.
Critics say establishing a new Department of Veterans' Affairs would be an example of the bloating of the federal government that Ronald Reagan campaigned against in 1980.
According to an analysis by the Congressional Budget Office, the cost of the move would be negligible. The VA budget would go up by only about $30,000, with most of that going to raise the pay of administrators to Cabinet level.
But skeptics fear future costs. They feel that veterans would use their Cabinet status to push for larger and more expensive programs. And they say that the VA, large as it is, is basically an automatic dispenser of checks, and no more deserves a separate Cabinet seat than does the Social Security Administration.
Congressional sources admit they have been stung by the many negative media editorials on the subject. ``There's practically unanimous editorial opinion that this shouldn't be done,'' says a staff member.
But similar media fire did not sink the proposal to create a Department of Education - and veterans are at least as powerful an interest group as teachers.
In the wake of President Reagan's unexpected endorsement of the idea, the House voted 399 to 17 to approve legislation promoting the VA.
Powerful congressmen, such as Rep. G.V. (Sonny) Montgomery, chairman of the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs, championed the bill and brought pressure to bear on colleagues in the Senate for similar quick action.
In response to this pressure and requests from veterans groups, the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee held a quick hearing on the issue Dec. 9. But chairman John Glenn (D) of Ohio and other panel members have declined to whoop the bill on through to the Senate floor.
Further Senate hearings have been scheduled for the last week in February. The VA has been much criticized in the past for the quality of its work, and aides say they want to make sure past problems have been solved before considering promotion.