House Republicans advanced an appropriations bill Wednesday that would increase spending for the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) by $18 billion from last fiscal year but significantly reduce a key fund providing care for veterans exposed to toxic chemicals.
The House Appropriations Subcommittee on Military Construction and Veterans Affairs introduced the bill, which would fully fund the VA budget request and provide about $152 billion in discretionary spending for the agency, up from the Biden administration's request of $142.8 billion.
But the legislation was passed by the subcommittee despite concerns from Democrats over a $14.7 billion cut to the Toxic Exposures Fund from the Biden administration's request of about $20 billion for the medical benefits allocation.
Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), the ranking member of the subcommittee, said the "message Republicans are sending to the American people is they are not interested in protecting veterans."
"In spite of the imaginary topline of this bill, it still underfunds our commitment to our veterans," she said at the legislation's markup session.
Republicans argue they met a promise to not cut veterans spending after a huge fight with Democrats and veterans organizations over potential reductions to the VA.
Those concerns were raised after the House passed the Limit, Save, Grow Act last month, which caps all new non-defense spending at fiscal 2022 levels, amounting to a $130 billion topline cut across all federal agencies except the Defense Department.
Republicans pledged not to cut the VA and said reduced spending could be made at other agencies instead.
Rep. Kay Granger (R-Texas), the chairwoman of the Appropriations Committee, said Wednesday that the bill "responsibly funds veterans health care."
"It will ensure our veterans get the treatment they deserve," she said. "It's a strong bill."
While the bill passed out of the subcommittee, it is still in the markup phase and will need to pass the full Appropriations Committee before heading to the House floor.
All appropriations bills setting up funding for the next fiscal year are usually passed by the end of September after approval by both the House and the Senate.
Some veterans organizations have blasted the veterans spending legislation for reducing the Toxic Exposures Fund, which is crucial to helping veterans get care for exposure to toxic chemicals.
That's especially important after Congress approved the PACT Act last year, which expanded veteran access to toxins exposure benefits. More than 500,000 claims have already been filed through the PACT Act.
"House Republicans are shortchanging the Fund by $14.7 BILLION dollars," tweeted progressive group VoteVets. "Breaking a promise to Veterans—and lying to us on top of it."
Republicans included around $5.5 billion for the fund. GOP lawmakers said they rejected the additional allocations for the Toxic Exposure Fund over concerns about it being included in mandatory spending.
Rep. John Carter (R-Texas), chairman of the Military and Veterans Affairs subcommittee, said Republicans "did not accept the proposed shift of more than $14 billion to the mandatory side of the budget" for the Toxic Exposure Fund.
"Instead, we utilized the Cost of War Toxic Exposure Fund as intended: to cover the incremental costs above the [fiscal 2021] baseline to implement the PACT Act," Carter said in a Wednesday statement during the markup hearing.
Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), the ranking member of the Appropriations Committee, delivered a lengthy statement in opposition to the legislation.
She said the bill is "completely detached from reality" and breaks a promise from the PACT Act.
"Do not tell me that Republicans are fully funding programs," DeLauro said at the markup. "The larger Republican agenda does nothing to protect veterans from their proposed cuts."
Separately, the subcommittee legislation also includes more than $17 billion for the Defense Department's military construction projects and for military housing, an increase of more than $900 million from the Biden administration's request.