House approves veterans' health measures in bipartisan vote
The bills will expand care for veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Republican-controlled House approved legislation Thursday to boost health care spending for veterans and provide more money to compensate record numbers of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans claiming service-related disabilities as they return home.
The 407-12 vote reflected the traditional bipartisan support for veterans in Congress and efforts by Republicans to exempt veterans' programs from cuts felt by other domestic programs.
Roughly half of the $148 billion measure is for veterans' pensions and disability payments over which lawmakers have little practical control. That includes a 20 percent, $10.5 billion increase for such payments.
The Associated Press reported earlier this week that 45 percent of the 1.6 million veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are now seeking compensation for injuries they say are service-related. About 1.2 million veterans are expected to file for disability claims next year, on top of a backlog of almost 1 million applicants.
The measure also boosts spending for Veterans Administration medical services in 2014 by $2.2 billion, a 5 percent increase that came even as the VA revealed earlier this year that it had overestimated medical care costs by $3 billion for this year and $2 billion for next.
VA medical programs are budgeted more than a year in advance to insulate them from the ups and downs of the budget process.
Pro-labor Republicans joined with Democrats to win 218-198 passage of an amendment by Rep. Michael Grimm, R-N.Y., to strip a provision that would have blocked the Pentagon from requiring contractors to sign project labor agreements to secure federal contracts. Such agreements require contractors to negotiate with union officials, recognize union wages and generally abide by collective-bargaining agreements.
The veterans' measure is perhaps the most popular of the 12 annual spending bills that Congress must pass. It had been expected to pass easily despite a White House veto threat that was issued over moves by GOP leaders to break faith with last summer's budget deal by cutting overall funding for agency operating budgets by $19 billion, almost 2 percent.
The veto promise didn't find fault with the funding levels in the veterans' measure itself. Instead, it said the GOP moves on spending would force deep cuts to domestic programs like education, research and health care in subsequent legislation.
Disability claims from Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans are running much higher than from veterans of prior conflicts. An estimated 21 percent of veterans filed claims after the first Gulf War in the early 1990s, government officials say.
What's more, these new veterans are claiming a greater number of ailments than veterans of prior conflicts like the Vietnam War and World War II.
Many factors are driving the dramatic increase in claims — the weak economy, more troops surviving wounds and more awareness of problems such as concussions and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Disability payments range from $127 a month for a 10 percent disability to $2,769 for a full one.
The measure also funds $10.6 billion in military construction projects.