Senate approves budget for veterans programs

AP News
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Posted: Nov 17, 2009 6:53 PM

The Senate on Tuesday adopted the latest in a continuing series of major budget increases to provide medical care for veterans.

The move came as the Senate passed, by a rare 100-0 vote, a $134 billion spending bill for veterans programs and military construction projects. Even the most ardent spending hawks and foes of the congressional practice of earmarking pet projects to lawmakers' districts and states voted for the legislation.

The unanimous vote reflected the unique political standing of the veterans budget, which has received hefty increases even as former President George W. Bush sought to tamp down spending on domestic programs. Those increases have become even more significant since Democrats won control of Congress three years ago.

The pending measure awards a 9 percent increase over last year's budget for veterans health care. The House passed a companion measure this summer and the bill now heads to House-Senate talks to produce a final version for President Barack Obama to sign.

Even as more and more veterans of World War II and the Korean War die off, costs are rising for service members wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan. One factor in rising costs is that people are surviving battlefield wounds that would have proven fatal in the past, including losses of multiple limbs and traumatic brain injuries.

At the same time, repeated deployments and combat stress have led to increasing numbers of veterans seeking help for post-traumatic stress disorder.

The Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that 419,000 veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan will be covered by VA health care by next year _ a 61 percent increase over 2008 levels _ at a cost of $2.1 billion.

The measure also approves a $48.2 billion down payment on the budget for veterans medical care for 2011. The "advance appropriation" is aimed at guaranteeing consistent and predictable funding for veterans medical care.

Also Tuesday, the Senate killed an amendment by Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., that would have barred the Obama administration from either building in the U.S. a new prison to hold detainees from the controversial Guantanamo Bay prison or upgrading an existing facility to hold them.

Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., who's advocating bringing Guantanamo detainees to a largely vacant state prison in rural Illinois, rallied colleagues against the amendment and said it made no sense to bring prisoners from Guantanamo to the U.S. but not be able to spend money to make U.S. facilities safer.