WASHINGTON—The fight to push forward legislation that would create a three-year pilot programming allowing VA to provide grants to community groups targeting veteran suicide has caused rare, public friction among the usually bipartisan House VA Committee and between committee Democrats and VA leaders. At the center of the argument is who would be eligible for such funding, the amount of oversight VA should have over how groups spend the money, and whether funds could be used to provide clinical care.
A Republican-backed version of the bill—HR 3495, “The Improve Well-Being for Veterans Act”—leaned toward looser purse-strings, allowing more groups to apply for funding. An amended version introduced by committee Chairman Mark Takano (D-CA) provided more oversight for who gets the money and how it’s spent. His version also prohibited organizations from using VA grant money to provide clinical care, although the groups could use their own funds to provide such care.
Of the original version of the bill, Takano said, “There is no accountability for how this grant money will be spent. … As written it doesn’t even require that funds be spend on organizations that directly serve veterans in their communities.”
Takano introduced his amended legislation after weeks of negotiating but failed to come up with a version of the bill both parties could agree on. The committee voted last month to pass Takano’s version on to the full House—a vote that was sharply split along partisan lines.
It is unlikely that negotiations are over, however. The legislation still needs to be passed in the House before moving on to the Republican-controlled Senate where, considering the bill’s history of partisan disagreement, it’s likely to be amended further.
The legislation has caused fracture lines not just between committee members, but between Takano and VA Secretary Robert Wilkie, whose office aggressively lobbied for the original bill. At a Nov. 20 hearing discussing the original bill, tempers ran high as Takano and Wilkie frequently cut each other off during questioning. Takano contended that Wilkie had overstepped his mandate by having his office reach out directly to legislators asking them to cosponsor of the bill. Wilkie came close to suggesting that Takano and committee Democrats were allowing veterans to die while they debated.
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