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Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Senate to Pass Strong -- and Rich -- Veterans' Bill

From the Associated Press:

A bill providing major increases for medical care for veterans of Iraq and other wars is cruising through the Senate, even though it busts President Bush's budget by $4 billion. The Senate is scheduled to pass the measure Wednesday, rewarding the Veterans Affairs Department with an almost 10 percent budget increase for its health care accounts.

The bill adds to Bush's already whopping increase for construction projects at military bases and other Defense Department facilities, including domestic bases that are being expanded to accept troops now stationed in Germany and South Korea.

The White House has backed off a veto threat issued in May, though it still says the measure — providing $65 billion in funds provided at lawmakers' discretion and $41 billion in veterans disability benefits — would spend too much. But any veto of the bill and its politically sacrosanct funding for veterans was likely to have been overridden, prompting a White House retreat when issuing an official policy statement on Tuesday.

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The White House has been on the defensive on veterans issues since greatly underestimating medical care costs two years ago. Revelations of substandard conditions for wounded soldiers at Walter Reed Army Medical Center — a Pentagon facility — and complaints of delays in processing VA benefit applications have kept the pressure on.

And as casualties from Iraq have mounted, particularly those with post-traumatic stress disorder and expensive-to-treat brain injuries, Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill have competed to pour money into the VA. "This bill finally takes the necessary steps to recognize our veterans as a cost of war," said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash. ...

The measure also funds popular military construction projects, including $2.7 billion for a "grow the force" initiative aimed at boosting Army, Marine Corps and National Guard ranks by 92,000 over five years.

There's also $8.2 billion to implement the 2005 round of military base closings, both to improve conditions at bases slated for troop increases and to assist states and localities in preparing closed bases for economic development projects and other uses.

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