BY NIKKI WENTLING | STARS AND STRIPES | AUGUST 4, 2021
WASHINGTON — Senate appropriators voted Wednesday to advance the largest-ever budget for the Department of Veterans Affairs, backing President Joe Biden’s 10% increase for the agency.
The Senate Appropriations Committee voted 25-5 to advance the Military Construction, Veterans Affairs, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act of 2022 — a move that signals widespread support in Congress for the spending increase.
Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., a member of the committee, said the bill provides “groundbreaking investment in VA health care and research.”
Several Republicans voted against the measure. Their objections were focused on the White House’s overall budget plan, rather than the proposed increase for the VA. Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., criticized Biden for boosting nondefense spending while proposing only a small increase for the Defense Department.
Shelby, the ranking Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee, voted in favor of the VA increase but he said he had concerns about the rest of the fiscal 2022 budget process.
“I think we’re proceeding on the wrong road,” he said. “Our concerns about the path ahead are real, and they are fueled by the Biden administration’s determination to recklessly tax and spend on the domestic side while neglecting critical investments in our national security.”
Congress is scheduled to recess for the remainder of August but faces a Sept. 30 deadline to approve the fiscal 2022 budget. If lawmakers approve the budget, the VA is set to receive nearly $270 billion.
The bill advanced Wednesday includes $155.4 billion in mandatory spending, which goes toward entitlement programs for veterans and does not go through the congressional appropriations process. The remaining $112.9 billion are discretionary funds, with the majority going to medical care.
The legislation includes a $7.5 billion increase in medical care from 2021, with more money going toward rural health care, the veteran caregiver program, women’s health, mental health and homelessness prevention.
It also allots more money for the VA to hire more processors to handle veterans’ claims for benefits. The agency has been tackling a large backlog of claims that accumulated during the coronavirus pandemic.
In addition to the VA, the bill provides $11 billion for military construction and family housing — an increase of nearly $3 billion from 2021. Lawmakers said the boost would fund 176 major construction projects and help address critical infrastructure problems.
The bill nearly triples the budget for Arlington National Cemetery, providing the cemetery $228 million. Of that amount, $141 million would go toward a project to expand the cemetery’s boundaries and add 80,000 burial spaces.
“This package will deliver critical resources where they’re most needed,” said Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., a member of the appropriations committee. “I’ll keep working with my colleagues across the aisle to get it to the finish line.”