Senate passes VA spending bill in near-unanimous vote

The Senate passed the Military Construction/Veterans Affairs Department spending bill for fiscal 2008 in a near-unanimous vote, which will likely compel President Bush to sign it despite a previous threat to veto it. The appropriations are $4 billion more than the president requested, which led the White House to raise the threat.

The bill includes $64.8 billion for discretionary spending and $41 billion in veterans’ disability benefits.

The Senate passed the bill by a 92-1 vote Sept. 6. Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) made the lone vote against it. The Senate bill mirrors the House version passed in June.

The bill increases VA health care by almost 10 percent, or $3.2 billion. That’s in addition to $1.3 billion that Congress added for health care to the Iraq funding bill passed in May.

“Congress has a responsibility to provide for important veterans programs, especially during a time of war,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).

”The VA has consistently underestimated the resources necessary to meet the growing needs of veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, resulting in dangerous budget shortfalls that have imperiled the availability of quality health care for all veterans,” said Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, in a statement.

Two years ago, the administration’s estimate for health care fell far short of veterans’ needs. Earlier this year, revelations about mismanagement and poor living conditions for wounded soldiers and follow-up care for veterans drove the Bush administration and Congress to improve military and veterans health care as a cost of war. VA continues to lag on resolving and delivering veterans’ disability benefits in a timely manner.

“This funding bill provides the resources needed to improve and strengthen health care for our brave veterans, and wisely directs key investments to areas in the greatest need,” Byrd said.

The bill provides for $1.8 billion for information technology systems, $684 million more than this year’s enacted level and $38.8 million more than Bush’s request. Funds will go toward IT programs, including information security, the Financial and Logistics Integrated Technology Enterprise, and the HealtheVet-Vista Electronic Health Records system.

In final deliberations, the Senate added an amendment requiring VA to develop the capability to anonymously report online waste, fraud and abuse to the inspector general through a link on VA’s home page. The VA is to create the link 30 days after passage of the bill.

The Senate also added $100 million to the spending bill for security at the 2008 political conventions in St. Paul, Minn., and Denver.

About the Author

Mary Mosquera is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.

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