House Speaker Nancy Pelosi wrote to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin on Saturday pressing for added funds to help veterans see private doctors as part of any deal to raise the debt ceiling and tight appropriations caps.
Pelosi’s letter opens a new front in the talks as congressional leaders and the White House head into high-stakes negotiations with little time remaining before the August recess.
The veterans money would be an add-on above the regular nondefense increases sought by Democrats. However, Pelosi argues the needs are sufficient to warrant an exception from the typical spending “parity” deals — or equal increases for defense and nondefense programs — that lawmakers have struck in recent years.
“We all agree on the need to address the debt limit, but we also must reach an agreement on spending priorities based upon the principle of parity as soon as possible,” Pelosi wrote.
Pelosi and Mnuchin are accelerating their discussions because of new forecasts that Treasury could run out of borrowing authority in the first half of September. The House is scheduled to adjourn for its summer recess on July 26.
The speaker, a Democrat from California, sent the letter after speaking with Mnuchin for 12 minutes on Saturday, and the two agreed to talk again on Monday, according to Pelosi’s office.
House Democrats, as well as many Senate Republicans, want to attach the necessary debt limit increase to legislation raising austere spending limits for fiscal 2020. If left unaddressed, current law would require cuts of 10% on average across military, domestic and foreign aid appropriations.
The veterans funding issue arose in the last several years after the 2014 scandal that saw veterans unable to get in to see doctors at regular Department of Veterans Affairs facilities. Congress appropriated several rounds of emergency funds for a new program to allow veterans to access private care as a stopgap measure.
In 2018, President Donald Trump signed legislation that updated and consolidated several accounts and made what was known as the “VA Choice” program fully discretionary. That meant it had to compete with other nondefense programs for the same limited pot of money each year.
Pelosi notes in her letter to Mnuchin that lawmakers expect private care programs to cost $9 billion in fiscal 2020 and another $13 billion in fiscal 2021 on top of expected costs for the “base” VA budget.
“It is essential to understand that past agreements on parity between defense and nondefense spending did not take into account the additional and growing cost of implementing the” 2018 law’s private care access programs, Pelosi wrote.