The spending plan — which advanced on a party-line vote out of the House Appropriations Committee — also calls for a record $320 billion in veterans program spending next fiscal year, matching the White House’s funding request released earlier this year.
The more than 6% increase in new spending was not enough, however, to offset Democratic concerns about limiting department outreach efforts to women and minority groups, objections that are likely to be repeated when the measure reaches the Democratic-controlled Senate later this summer.
“This committee is wasting its time,” said Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., ranking member of the committee’s panel on veterans issues. “It should be focused on issues that face the veterans community every day: ending veteran suicide, decreasing the claims backlogs, ensuring the VA can attract and retain clinicians. But we are instead focusing on non-issues to bow down to the demands of the far right wing of the Republican Party.”
Republican leaders of the committee said the moves are needed to rein in political posturing and overreach by VA officials in recent years.
“These are issues that should be handled by Congress, not the executive branch,” said Rep. John Carter, R-Texas, chairman of the committee’s panel on veterans programs.
VA officials announced last September — in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn the long-standing Roe v Wade ruling which legalized abortions nationwide — that they would offer abortion access to veterans and eligible dependents “in cases that endanger the life or health of an individual.”
That included performing abortions at some VA facilities in states where the procedure is outlawed. VA attorneys have maintained the move does not violate criminal statutes because department facilities are on federal land.
In the eight months since the new rule was announced, VA physicians performed fewer than 40 abortions, according to department officials. Still, the decision to provide any abortion assistance drew widespread condemnation from congressional conservatives, who have accused VA leaders of violating numerous federal laws with the move.
Under language adopted in the budget bill, all abortions at VA medical centers would be halted, except in cases of rape, incest or life-threatening complications.
VA officials announced two years ago that they would offer gender confirmation surgeries, also known as gender reassignment surgeries, for the first time in an effort to provide better health care to transgender veterans.
The National Center for Transgender Equality estimates there are roughly 134,000 transgender veterans in America today, and another 15,000 transgender individuals serving in the armed forces. VA officials have estimated that around 4,000 veterans nationwide may be interested in gender confirmation surgeries.
However, none have been performed so far. VA Secretary Denis McDonough has repeatedly said he is reviewing the issue but made no final decision on when the operations may start.
Under the GOP-passed plan, that would never happen. The bill calls for not only preventing gender confirmation surgeries but also “hormone therapies for the purposes of gender affirming care,” scaling back current offerings for transgender veterans.
The controversy over Pride flags at VA facilities is a more recent one. Since the start of national Pride month on June 1, multiple Republican lawmakers have objected to the rainbow LGBTQ flag being displayed outside numerous VA facilities, calling it a political statement. VA leaders have said they have allowed such displays (below the American flag) for the last few years.
The budget bill would prevent any flags except the U.S. flag, state and local government flags, the VA flag, the flags of the military services, or the POW/MIA flag from being displayed on VA land.
The bans overshadowed other Democratic concerns about the budget bill that were mostly focused on concerns about other domestic spending.
GOP leaders have hinted at similar fights over abortion and transgender issues in other budget bills in coming weeks. Conversely, Senate Democratic appropriators have vowed not to back such provisions in their budget bills, putting the future of the veterans budget bill in doubt.
Lawmakers have until the start of the new fiscal year — Oct. 1 — to pass new government funding bills or a current funding extension. Without either move, lawmakers would trigger a partial government shutdown.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.