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The House overwhelmingly approved its $217 billion Veterans Affairs Department budget plan for next fiscal year, over objections from the White House that it doesn’t go far enough.
The plan, approved Wednesday on a 416-1 vote, would ban bonuses for senior VA executives and redirect almost $40 million in planned departmental spending to bolster ongoing efforts to reduce the backlog in disability benefits claims.
But White House officials said a cut of nearly $368 million in its VA budget request could “delay the timely delivery of health care services to veterans and impede the administration’s efforts to end veterans’ homelessness in 2015.”
The plan sets aside $64.7 billion in discretionary funding for the department, and includes another $58.7 billion in advanced program funding for 2016.
Lawmakers dismissed the White House criticism. “If the department needed something, it is in the bill, and if it didn’t need it, it is not in the bill,” said Rep. Sanford Bishop, D-Ga.
Along with the backlog focus, the measure holds back millions of dollars in technology funding from VA planners until Congress is convinced they are making progress on developing a way to share electronic medical records.
During floor debate, lawmakers promised continued oversight on both of those issues, as well as recent allegations of medical care delays and records manipulation in the Phoenix VA Medical System. Lawmakers took $1 million from the department’s administration account to better fund an inspector general investigation into those problems.
Rep. John Culberson, R-Texas, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee’s veterans affairs subcommittee, said lawmakers are concerned about reports that at least 40 veterans may have died because of the care delays. He said the review that is underway “could mean criminal charges” for some administrators involved.
An amendment to the bill that would have allowed veterans to seek VA physicians’ advice on medical marijuana was rejected by a 222-195 vote.
Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., argued that the measure would help veterans in states where the drug is legal to make more informed decisions.
But opponents noted that federal law still prohibits use of the drug, and the amendment would put federal employees in the position of recommending breaking those laws.
Separate from the VA funding, the bill includes $6.6 billion for military construction projects, a drop of more than $3 billion from the White House request.
Senate appropriations officials have not given a timetable for when the chamber will take up the spending bill.