WASHINGTON — Veterans programs would see a significant boost under the budget proposal laid out by the White House this week, but lawmakers were more concerned Wednesday about whether the looming threat of automatic defense funding cuts could undo those positive numbers.
House Veterans Affairs Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla., said questions of whether congressionally mandated defense spending cuts — part of a sequestration mechanism agreed upon last summer — have left veterans “twisting in the wind” and threaten to undo positive steps in their support programs.
The sequestration agreement, to be enforced starting next January, will force more than $500 billion in defense spending reductions over the next decade, along with corresponding cuts to other domestic, non-defense initiatives.
White House officials have declined to issue a formal ruling on whether those cuts could include veterans programs, although lawmakers have said they did not intend the Department of Veterans Affairs to be included.
Miller accused the White House of delaying an answer on the veterans issue to pressure Congress into finding alternative cuts, and promised to offer new legislation in coming days which would exempt the VA from any sequester reductions.
“There is enough pressure to act already without threatening veterans,” he said. “One way or another, a decision must be made.”
Democrats on the committee dismissed concerns about political gamesmanship, but echoed concerns that the looming cuts could hurt veterans.
In contrast to the contentious defense budget debates being held on the other side of Capitol Hill on Wednesday, committee lawmakers from both parties offered support for the veterans portions of the White House’s fiscal 2013 budget plan, which would boost discretionary spending for veterans programs by 4.5 percent.
VA Secretary Eric Shinseki said the funding boost comes at a time when the department already working to serve about 1.4 million Iraq and Afghanistan veterans and anticipating another 1 milllion new veterans leaving the military in the next five years.
The increased funding will go toward reducing the benefits backlog, including improvements to claims processing systems, he said. The department is also seeking more money for mental health services, initiatives to help homeless veterans, and programs focused on medical access for female veterans.
The budget plan also calls for $1 billion for the president’s new Veterans Job Corps proposal, which would hire Iraq and Afghanistan veterans as public safety and park service employees. Conservatives on the panel said they remain concerned about the lack of details on that program, even with the employment problems facing that veteran population.