Veterans sound alarm on McCarthy budget cuts

Veterans are blasting the debt ceiling legislation passed by the Republican-controlled House this week, warning it will cut key programs and services for the nation’s retired service members.

The House passed the Limit, Save, Grow Act largely along party lines in a 217-215 vote Wednesday night despite the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) warning of a drastic 22 percent cut to the department’s budget under the bill.

The legislation, which is unlikely to pass a Democrat-controlled Senate and is opposed by President Biden, caps all new spending at fiscal 2022 levels, amounting to a $130 billion cut to non-defense spending across federal agencies, which would include the VA.

According to a VA press release, that would mean 81,000 jobs lost in the department’s health services, 30 million fewer outpatient visits for veterans and an increase of disability backlogs by 134,000 claims, among a range of other concerns.

Sarah Streyder, the executive director of the nonpartisan group Secure Families Initiative — which represents active-duty families but coordinates closely with the VA for client services — said there are already backlogs and waitlists at the VA that would be further exacerbated by the GOP budget proposal.

Streyder said whether the bill passes or not, the “harm is already being done” and the legislation is a “huge ding in morale” for the military, service members and veterans.

“It’s becoming politicized in a way that is so counterproductive and discouraging,” she said. “When the U.S. government sends servicemembers to war, it comes with a promise that they’ll be taken care of on the other side.”

“Going against that promise is not only wrong, but it does harm the morale of actively serving families,” Streyder added.

Republicans have denied that VA services will be impacted, but without making clear how a non-defense discretionary cap wouldn’t impact the department.

Rep. Mike Bost (R-Ill.), the chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, said “Democrats have spread false claims” about the budget.

“Republicans have always prioritized veterans in our spending to ensure veterans have access to the care, benefits, and services they have earned,” Bost said in a statement last week.

“Anyone who questions our commitment to the men and women who have served should find new talking points.”

Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) introduced the Limit, Save, Grow Act this month amid a battle with Biden over the nation’s debt ceiling and what he calls out-of-control government spending.

The McCarthy proposal is a counter to the president’s $6 trillion spending plan for 2024 released last month, which Biden says would also reduce the national deficit by trillions of dollars through new taxes.

Looming over the budget fight is the debt ceiling. The U.S. has about $31 trillion in national debt owed to a variety of creditors, including foreign investors. House GOP lawmakers are refusing to raise the ceiling again to authorize more borrowing, a move that economists worry could badly damage the economy.

In addition to non-defense cuts, McCarthy’s bill would also raise the debt ceiling by $1.5 trillion or through the end of next March, whichever happens first, and cap annual spending increases to 1 percent.

McCarthy’s office in a statement to The Hill defended the GOP proposal and called on Biden to sit down for negotiations over the debt limit, which the president has thus far refused to do.

“Americans should expect that we prioritize meeting our veterans’ needs instead of trying to leverage their benefits for unrelated spending,” it said.

More than 20 veterans groups sent a letter to Congress this week protesting McCarthy’s budget, saying it would “leave many veteran resources open to cuts, potentially undoing years of progress VA has made.”

“Our nation’s veterans, caregivers, and survivors have already sacrificed too much,” the letter reads. “Our country must keep our promises and provide them with the best healthcare and benefits possible. The Limit, Save, Grow Act of 2023 does not spell out the necessary protections and puts these benefits at risk.”

House Democrats joined veterans group VoteVets outside the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday ahead of the vote, highlighting the impact cuts would have on veterans.

Rick Hegdahl, a national outreach director with VoteVets, said he served in the Iraq war and relies on the VA for “much of my healthcare,” including medications and doctors visits.

“The cuts to veteran healthcare that Kevin McCarthy and extreme Republicans are proposing will be devastating to veterans like myself,” he said.

Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.), ranking member of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs who sponsored legislation last year that expanded benefits for veterans exposed to toxins, said the House budget proposal fails to honor that legislation.

Takano accused House Republicans of “holding veterans benefits hostage” in the budget fight.

“Despite their patriotic platitudes, their cliche expressions thanking veterans for their service, and purporting to care so much for veterans, they have failed to produce a budget that puts their money where their mouth is,” he said.

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