Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont. attends a briefing at the Capitol in Washington, D.C., on Dec. 6, 2017. Tester urged Congress on Wednesday, Dec. 13, to lift spending caps and fully fund the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont. attends a briefing at the Capitol in Washington, D.C., on Dec. 6, 2017. Tester urged Congress on Wednesday, Dec. 13, to lift spending caps and fully fund the Department of Veterans Affairs. (Carlos Bongioanni/Stars and Stripes)

WASHINGTON — Senate Democrat Jon Tester urged Congress on Wednesday to lift spending caps and fully fund the Department of Veterans Affairs in a possible year-end budget deal that could be reached by the end of the week.

Congress passed an emergency spending bill last Thursday to fund the government until Dec. 22. With only days remaining on the official congressional calendar, House conservatives on Wednesday were considering another stopgap deal to lift strict caps on defense spending and provide a full year’s worth funding to the Defense Department while giving only short-term funding to other agencies, according to news reports.

Tester, along with the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, Disabled American Veterans and Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, argued the VA and other agencies should receive the same consideration given the Defense Department.

“This fight right now is about whether the Department of Defense and the Department of Defense only gets more resources, and what we’re saying is if you stand by servicemembers, you have to stand by veterans,” Schatz said. “That means funding defense and non-defense on an equal basis.”

Senate Democrats sent a letter to GOP leadership Tuesday asking for bipartisan negotiation on a spending deal.

Tester, on a call with reporters, urged lawmakers to incorporate all provisions from the Caring for Our Veterans Act in a year-end deal. The act is bipartisan legislation that the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee advanced to the full Senate on Nov. 29.

The bill is estimated to cost $54 billion for five years. It expands caregiver benefits to veterans injured before 9/11, overhauls the VA’s community care programs and includes $3 billion for the nearly depleted Veterans Choice program, among other things.

“I think it’s just a matter of pushing leadership to get it on the end-of-year package,” said Tester, the ranking Democrat on the Senate committee and a sponsor of the bill. “This will solve the VA’s problems for the short term, and I think it would move it forward in the long term, too.”

Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., the chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, issued a statement Tuesday asking Senate leadership to schedule a vote on the bill. VA Secretary David Shulkin sent notice earlier Tuesday that the Choice program, which allows veterans to receive care in the private sector, would be depleted in three to five weeks. Without congressional action, he wrote, the VA will be overburdened and veterans will experience decreased access to medical care.

Emergency funding for the Choice program isn’t an option that Tester wants to consider yet, he said.

Congress already approved $2.1 billion in last-minute funding to the Choice program in mid-August when it hit a shortfall. Tester described another emergency funding bill as a “Band-Aid” on a problem that needs a long-term solution.

“Stopgap is not the kind of predictability our veterans deserve,” Tester said. “Short-term fixes are exactly what’s wrong with Washington. Let’s get something long-term and predictable. Our veterans deserve nothing less than that.”

Two other Choice program reform bills exist in Congress. The House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs hasn’t yet agreed on a bill that was introduced in November.

Tester called on Shulkin, who supports Choice reform in general but hasn’t taken a stance on any one bill, to get behind the Caring for Our Veterans Act.

“Where is the will of the leadership in the House and Senate – and by the way, the VA – to get this done?” Tester said. “We’d love to have Shulkin step up and support this bill in a powerful way.”

Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., a member of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, on Wednesday also called for budget caps on the VA to be lifted. Instead of incorporating measures from the committee’s bill, though, he wanted a year-end deal to include his own reform bill – the Veterans Community Care and Access Act.

In a written statement, Moran said: “I will continue to call for [Budget Control Act] cap relief for the VA, but that spending must be accompanied by real reforms that result in better care for veterans – the status quo is not sufficient.” Twitter: @nikkiwentling

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Nikki Wentling has worked for Stars and Stripes since 2016. She reports from Congress, the White House, the Department of Veterans Affairs and throughout the country about issues affecting veterans, service members and their families. Wentling, a graduate of the University of Kansas, previously worked at the Lawrence Journal-World and Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. The National Coalition of Homeless Veterans awarded Stars and Stripes the Meritorious Service Award in 2020 for Wentling’s reporting on homeless veterans during the coronavirus pandemic. In 2018, she was named by the nonprofit HillVets as one of the 100 most influential people in regard to veterans policymaking.

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