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Craig wins boost in veterans funds

U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., shown here in October, tried to increase the Veterans Affairs budget an additional $2.85 billion.
 (File/Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)
U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., shown here in October, tried to increase the Veterans Affairs budget an additional $2.85 billion. (File/Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)
E. Katherine Underwood Staff writer

WASHINGTON – Republican U.S. Sen. Larry Craig of Idaho persuaded Senate colleagues Wednesday to boost spending on veterans health care by $410 million next year to avoid proposed White House cuts.

But an attempt by U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., to increase the Veterans Affairs budget an additional $2.85 billion failed along a largely party-line vote.

The budget battles played out over several hours Wednesday in the Republican-controlled Senate.

Triggering the showdown is President Bush’s proposed cuts in veterans spending. Bush wants veterans to pay an annual fee of $250 for health care, increase their prescription drug co-payments from $7 to $15, and cut nearly $300 million in funding for state veterans homes.

Craig’s amendment rejects these requests and brings a $1.2 billion increase in discretionary spending for veterans benefits and services.

It also adds about $316 million for veterans mental health services, prosthetics, construction of VA facilities and land acquisition to build cemeteries.

After two days of floor debate, senators, including Murray, voted in favor of Craig’s amendment to the Senate budget resolution, 96 to 4. Murray’s amendment lost narrowly, 53 to 47.

Craig argued that Murray’s amendment was far too expensive “in a very tight budget year when we are struggling to keep this economy alive.”

Murray wanted to close a corporate tax loophole to increase VA funding, but Craig moved $410 million directly from the State Department and foreign aid budgets – a redirection some Democrats said would hurt humanitarian relief programs. “Today members of the U.S. Senate had a choice,” Murray said in a statement. “They could choose to keep the promise to our nation’s veterans and make them a priority in this budget, or they could turn their backs. I am disappointed to say that the majority party made the wrong choice.”

Although Murray voted for Craig’s amendment, she said it provided only “a token amount” for veterans. Murray’s amendment would have provided an additional $1.4 billion to VA’s medical services, $578 million to extend VA care to veterans of all incomes and $527 million to help cover the costs of new veterans enrolling in the VA system.

Republicans are far from a victory on the issue, as the Senate must pass a final budget resolution and reconcile its version with the House’s. But Craig said the amendment was significant. “Today the U.S. Senate sent a clear message to our nation’s veterans, that we support them and appreciate their efforts, and we will take care of them,” he said in a statement.

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