Veterans service organizations are thrilled with a $43.1 billion appropriations bill that Congress is set to pass next month for the Department of Veterans Affairs.

The funding level for veterans programs and facilities is almost 20 percent higher than demoralized Republican leaders left behind a year ago. The $6.9 billion increase will allow VA to hire 1,800 more claim processors, beef up medical staffs and modernize long-neglected hospitals and clinics.

“I can’t praise the Democratic leadership enough for what they’ve done with addressing the budget that was handed to them the day they took office,” said Steve Robertson, legislative director for the American Legion.

The 109th Congress adjourned last December without passing a VA appropriations bill. It left the department operating under a “continuing resolution” with VA spending frozen at its fiscal ’06 level.

In taking control of the 110th Congress, Democrats immediately raised VA funding for fiscal 2007 by $3.5 billion. They then turned to veterans groups for guidance on setting the VA budget for ’08.

As usual, four major organizations — Veterans of Foreign Wars, Disabled American Veterans, Paralyzed Veterans of America and American Veterans (AMVETS) — prepared an “independent budget” to guide lawmakers. The American Legion followed up, also as usual, with its own budget wish list.

But then Democrats last spring did something very unusual. To the delight of advocacy groups, they used the budget guidance from vet groups to set their budget blueprint, making VA funding a clear priority.

“In the 20 years I’ve been working in Washington,” said Robertson, “this is the first time that [Congress] met or exceeded every recommendation that was made by both the Independent Budget and the American Legion. It’s unprecedented.”

It still is too early to access what veterans will gain legislatively this year besides robust VA funding, which is a lock. Committee hearings and reports from special commissions produced many headlines on needed benefit gains. But many of the resulting ideas, from bigger GI Bill benefits to raised disability payments, were controversial and costly. Most likely they won’t win serious consideration from lawmakers until 2008, at the earliest.

Other bills have been endorsed by the veterans’ affairs committees and some have been passed by either the House or the Senate. But their final passage is mired in partisan politics and special interests.

In separate phone interviews before Thanksgiving, Democratic Sens. Daniel Akaka (Hawaii) and Rep. Bob Filner (California), chairmen of the veterans’ affairs committees, cited the VA funding increases as the clear highlight of their first year holding their committee gavel.

“The key thing is resources have been put in place to do the job,” said Filner. He described a VA health system “stretched to its limit” by an aging veteran population and the special challenges of veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan with post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injuries.

“Typical for this administration, they weren’t prepared to deal with it,” said Filner, who seldom passes on an opportunity to fire a partisan shot. “Here we are four to five years into the war and they still don’t have enough PTSD people or [experts] to consult on suicide. It’s just ridiculous.”

Both chairmen said they continue to emphasis to colleagues, and to Bush administration officials, that care of veterans must be seen as a “cost of war.” Therefore VA budget increases must be part of any wartime supplemental budget bill passed to fund continued wartime operations.

Though Akaka and Filner helped to secure sharp increases this year in VA funding, they also chair the committees responsible for authorizing new programs and raising current benefits. Their success in that role has been established. Akaka confirmed that two major bills, which were cleared by his committee and are flush with initiatives to improve veterans’ health care and other benefits, might not be enacted until 2008.

The Veterans’ Traumatic Brain Injury and Other Health Programs Improvement Act (S. 1233) would extend the period of eligibility for discharged combat veterans to have swift access to VA health care from two years to five. Veterans who believe they suffer one of the “invisible wounds” of PTSD or brain injury would be guaranteed a mental health exam within 30 days of making a request. The same bill would increase the travel reimbursement rate for veterans commuting long distances to get VA care. It would jump to 28 cents a mile from the 11-cent rate set in 1978.

Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, has put a hold on the bill, however, because of a provision was added after it cleared committee to reopen VA health care to new Priority 8 enrollees. These are veterans with no service-connected disabilities and adequate incomes by government standards.

Akaka and Filner support Priority 8 enrollments. Dan Whiting, Craig’s spokesman, said he opposes reopening VA health care to every veteran “because it would take resources away from returning injured veterans.”

Craig also is blocking the Veterans Benefits Enhancement Act (S. 1315) which would improve veterans’ life insurance, adaptable housing and other benefits. What he opposes in this bill is language to give service pensions to Filipino veterans of World War II. Craig argues the pensions are too generous and they would be paid with dollars earmarked to provide a special monthly pension for elderly and housebound U.S. veterans.

Akaka and Filner pushed the Filipino pension provision through committee. Both have large Filipino populations among their constituencies.

Whiting said Craig is talking with Akaka about a possible compromise.

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