Payments to 3.8 million disabled veterans will cease Nov. 1 unless the impasse over federal spending is broken, Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki told a House committee Wednesday.
But that hardship can be avoided if warring partisans agree not to use veterans as “pawns” as they battle over the federal budget and government shutdown, members from both parties on the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs said.
Shinseki said money in the fund being used to pay disability benefits to veterans with service-connected injuries and illnesses will run dry if the shutdown does not end this month.
That means monthly payments of $4.5 billion will cease and most of the 13,000 VA employees who process benefits claims will be furloughed, he said.
Other consequences of a prolonged shutdown will be suspension of education benefits and payments to widows and orphans, Shinseki said.
The Veterans Health Administration, which provides medical care to veterans, is largely immune from the shutdown because it was funded in advance of the new fiscal year, which began Oct. 1. VHA accounts for about 80 percent of the agency’s personnel and spending, Shinseki said.
Two bills that would immediately fund the VA are stuck in the Senate. One received near-unanimous bipartisan support, and the other was sponsored by Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who caucuses with the Democrats and chairs the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has not scheduled either bill for a vote, leading to accusations from some Republicans on the House committee that he is playing politics with veterans’ benefits.
Democrats countered that House Republicans also could end the crisis by accepting President Obama’s demand that Congress send him clean spending bills for all agencies free of restrictions, such as delay of his signature health care plan known as Obamacare.
Rep. Mike Michaud, D-Maine, the ranking Democrat on the committee, said it doesn’t matter to him which solution is passed, but something needs to be done immediately to ensure veterans don’t bear the brunt of political gamesmanship.
“There’s two options for us to deal with,” Michaud said. “One’s in the jurisdiction of the House and the other is in the jurisdiction of the Senate. Either one would definitely help us. We’ve definitely got to move forward with one or the other.
“Washington’s brinksmanship cannot be allowed to threaten payments to our veterans. Unfortunately, as we heard from Secretary Shinseki today, that’s exactly what will happen in late October if funding is not approved.”
The House bill to fund the VA through 2014 passed that chamber 421-4 in June, and was approved later that month by the Senate Appropriations Committee.
Sanders’ bill would protect compensation, pension and survivors’ benefits from VA as a stopgap until a regular appropriation bill is adopted. It was introduced Sept. 30.
Shinseki was grilled by several committee members on whether he has tried to get Reid to bring the VA appropriation bill up for a vote in the Senate.
Shinseki said he has not talked to Reid about the bill. Though he was careful not to take a specific position on the House legislation, Shinseki did say the best solution is to fund all agencies and end the shutdown, echoing the president’s position.
Reid’s refusal to allow a Senate vote drew a rebuke from Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kan., leading to a testy exchange with committee Democrats.
“Do you think Sen. Reid doesn’t like our veterans, or the VA in particular?” Huelskamp asked Shinseki. Shinseki responded Reid is supportive of veterans.
Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn., said Huelskamp’s question was out of line.
“That’s beneath this Congress, and certainly beneath the committee, to question a commitment to veterans,” Walz said.
He asked Huelskamp to apologize, which Huelskamp initially refused to do. Near the end of the hearing, Huelskamp said he didn’t mean to offend, but added Reid himself is prone to name-calling when it comes to Republicans.