VA chief warns Congress that veterans will lose income if shutdown persists

Ali Watkins

Millions of the country’s veterans could see their compensation payments halt if the political stalemate over the federal budget keeps parts of the government shuttered into late October, the head of the Department of Veterans Affairs told Congress on Wednesday.

Testifying at a House Veterans’ Affairs Committee hearing, Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki warned legislators that the department’s backup funds will be depleted by the end of the month, leaving about 5.18 million veterans and their families without checks come November.

“Unless I can provide mandatory funding, to make the account solvent again, (on) Nov. 1 I will not send checks out,” Shinseki told the panel, adding that the checks total more than $6 billion in disability, compensation and pension payments.

Articulating the effects on VA services for the first time since the shutdown, Shinseki said that the department’s supply of backup funds was dwindling with halts in government funding. Staff furloughs have reversed recent progress in processing backlogged disability claims, funds to back G.I. Bill education checks are fast depleting, and the department, Shinseki said, didn’t have time to prepare.

“We looked at all the options,” he said, referring to the shutdown. “This is not one I believed would happen.”

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney opened his daily press briefing by referencing Shinseki’s testimony, saying the VA was forced to end overtime for claims processors last week, even as mandatory overtime had helped the agency reduce the disability claims backlog by 31 percent since March.

“As Secretary Shinseki told Congress today, we’ve already seen the backlog increase, reversing recent trends,” Carney said, noting that the VA had furloughed more than 10,000 employees.

Despite questions over payments, VA hospitals, clinics and centers will remain fully functioning because of appropriations approved in March, save for one joint health services venture with the U.S. Navy in North Chicago. Statements from President Barack Obama in the days leading up to the shutdown had suggested otherwise, when he said a budget standoff in Congress would leave veterans support centers unstaffed.

A resolution continues to be stymied by Capitol Hill’s partisan politics, with several committee members blaming their Senate counterparts for holding onto a House of Representatives bill that would fully fund veterans’ services despite the shutdown.

“This House, on a bipartisan basis, passed a VA military construction bill that fully funded (VA operations). Yet that bill languishes in the Senate,” said VA Committee Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla. “(The Senate) has chosen not to move that legislation forward.”

But Shinseki testified that the bill would be only a temporary solution, as several of the VA’s federal partners would remain hostage to the budget stalemate. The Department of Labor, he said, helps with veterans employment, and the Internal Revenue Service is integral to processing compensation checks.

“I don’t do that independently,” he said.

At the White House, Carney decried the House-passed veterans benefits measure as part of a “piecemeal approach” that he labeled “gimmickry” and “irresponsible.”

“The way to fix all these problems is not to notice one in the press and then fix it, a day, a week, two weeks or a month after people have been suffering the consequences of shutdown,” Carney said. “The way to do it is to open the government.”

Wednesday’s hearing offered the first clear public statements on an issue that has been heavily debated since the partial government shutdown began Oct. 1. Critics have suggested recent claims of impacts have been exaggerated and have accused the administration of using the VA as a pawn in a political game.

“This grave situation does not need to be assisted by misleading statements designed to aid a political argument by any party,” Miller said in his opening statement. “It’s my hope that we can uphold the best traditions of this committee and rise above all of that today.”

But his hopes weren’t enough to stifle the political finger-pointing that was in full swing Wednesday morning, which rubbed nerves on both sides and signaled a growing frustration with the continuing stalemate.

“Do you think Sen. (Harry) Reid doesn’t like our veterans?” Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kan., asked Shinseki, referring to the Senate majority leader, a Nevada Democrat whose opposition to anything other than a bill, without strings, to fully fund the government has been unshakeable.

Huelskamp is one of a group of House tea party conservatives that pushed the shutdown when Obama and the Democrats refused to budge on their demands to defund the Affordable Care Act. His question drew harsh criticism from Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn.

“Remove veterans from this fight,” Walz said. “Don’t allow people to grandstand and use them as pawns.”

Last week, the commander of the American Legion also complained that veterans had become pawns in the battle over the budget.

Learning of Huelskamp’s criticism, Reid said at a press conference, “I can’t dignify it with a response.”

Shinseki said that a bill to fund all aspects of the government, not just certain programs, which House Republicans are trying to do, was the only way forward for federal agencies. The president and congressional Democrats have insisted upon that approach, but the House Republican leadership has refused to consider it.

“What is best for veterans, and for all of us right now, is a budget for the entire federal government,” Shinseki said. “Let us get back to work. The sooner we do it, the faster we get back to full speed.”

Lesley Clark of the Washington Bureau contributed.

By Ali Watkins
McClatchy Washington Bureau