House extends funding for VA programs; bill waits on Senate support

Lawmakers this week are showing they can sometimes march together, at least when it comes to helping veterans.

Urged on by Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Calif., the House on Tuesday night approved a politically unassailable, 20-page package that continues myriad veterans’ programs and benefits. The move underscores congressional regard for veterans, while shedding light on Denham’s own role as an advocate.

“As we continue to tackle the pressing need for VA health care reform,” Denham said, “the last thing our veterans need is even more uncertainty with the many other benefits that have an equally important impact on their lives.”

Denham’s bill approved Tuesday night following a one-sided, 12-minute debate is effectively an annual affair, extending the authority for more than two dozen federal programs for another year. In some cases, the uncontroversial measure simply changes an expiration date, but keeps funding levels the same. A companion bill has not yet been offered in the Senate.

Three million dollars, for instance, will again be available for grants to help transport veterans in “highly rural” areas to health facilities. California has six remote, mostly mountainous counties, such as Alpine and Inyo, currently eligible for service under the individual grants, which can be as much as $50,000 each.

“In rural districts like mine, veterans often travel over 90 miles for an appointment, disrupting their lives and causing physical and financial hardship,” Denham said.

California is home to nearly 1.9 million veterans, more than any other state. More than half of California’s veterans are over the age of 60, and every congressional office keeps busy handling individual veterans’ issues as part of its constituent service.

“As a ballpark figure, roughly half our casework involves veterans,” Jack Langer, a spokesman for Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., said Wednesday.

The 25-member House Veterans Affairs Committee, on which Denham is one of six Californians, keeps busy holding officials’ feet to the fire, as happened Wednesday during an occasionally heated hearing into problems at the Phoenix VA Health Care System.

A former Air Force enlisted man, Denham has spent considerable time talking about veterans issues. It’s a prominent part of his political biography, and six of the 15 bills he’s introduced this Congress deal in some fashion with veterans. None of others has passed.

In some cases, his bill approved Tuesday reinforces spending levels. The legislation, for instance, increases to $250 million from $150 million the amount for “comprehensive service programs” for homeless veterans. In 2012, federal officials estimated there were about 62,000 homeless veterans nationwide, approximately one-quarter of whom lived in California.

Among past grant recipients, the Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Stockton received federal funding to help 791 vulnerable veterans’ households in San Joaquin County.

The bill also keeps alive for another year certain groups, including two veterans’ advisory committees that oversee education and minority affairs, and it refines the kind of aid provided by dozens of Mobile Vet Centers that have operated out of cities, including Fresno and Santa Cruz.

All told, the Congressional Budget Office estimates the bill will cost $1.3 billion if it were to stay in effect through 2019.

Denham’s bill was one of four dealing with veterans issues put on the House suspension calendar this week, a procedure designed for non-controversial items that can win approval by voice vote. Sometimes, lawmakers will nonetheless demand a roll call vote simply in order to go on record as supporting a popular measure. On Tuesday night, however, a voice vote proved sufficient.

“We owe it to our veterans,” Rep. Jackie Walorski, R-Ind. said, “to provide them with nothing but the best.”