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Senate votes to boost vets medical care

The Senate Thursday brushed past Bush administration protests and passed legislation containing big budget increases for medical care for veterans.
James Gandolfini, fourth from left, poses with Iraq war veterans after they arrived for the premiere of the HBO's \"Alive Day Memories: Home From Iraq,\" Tuesday, Sept. 4, 2007, in New York. Gandolfini was executive producer on the film which surveys the physical and emotional cost of war through memories of their \"alive day,\" the day they narrowly escaped death in Iraq.Henny Ray Abrams / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

The Senate Thursday brushed past Bush administration protests and passed legislation containing big budget increases for medical care for veterans.

The Senate approved the Department of Veterans Affairs budget bill by a 92-1 vote, with conservative Jim DeMint, R-S.C., casting the sole "nay" vote. The overwhelming margin illustrated why the White House backed away from a veto threat issued in May and has signaled President Bush will sign the bill, even though it breaks his budget by $4 billion.

The bill, which also provides huge budget increases for construction at U.S. military bases, is only the second of the 12 annual spending bills for the budget year beginning Oct. 1 to pass the Senate.

Potential for Iraq war riders
It's also the only bill exceeding Bush's budget requests not laboring under a veto threat. As such, it's a potential vehicle to carry other spending bills to either evade Bush vetoes or force the president's GOP allies in Congress to cast politically difficult votes.

The bill rewards the VA with an almost 10 percent budget increase of $3.2 billion for its health care accounts next year - on top of $1.3 billion added for health care to the Iraq funding bill passed in May.

The bill adds $395 million to Bush's already whopping $8.2 billion increase for construction projects at military bases and other Defense Department facilities, including domestic bases that are being expanded to accept troops now stationed in Germany and South Korea.

Overall, the measure provides $65 billion in funds provided at lawmakers' discretion, 7 percent more than requested by Bush, and $41 billion in veterans disability benefits whose formulas are set by other statutes.

The White House has been on the defensive on veterans issues since greatly underestimating medical care costs two years ago. Revelations of substandard conditions for wounded soldiers at Walter Reed Army Medical Center - even though it's not a VA facility - and complaints of delays in processing VA benefit applications have kept the pressure on.

And as casualties from Iraq have mounted, particularly those with post-traumatic stress disorder and expensive-to-treat brain injuries, Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill have competed to pour money into the VA.

Bush requested a 2 percent hike over current veterans health care spending levels.

The measure also funds popular military construction projects, facilities that will serve swelling Army, Marine Corps and National Guard ranks. The military is expected to increase by 92,000 troops over five years.

Most such projects are requested by the Pentagon, but senators added plenty of their own, including a "community activity center" at Malmstrom Air Force Base, requested by Montana Democrats Max Baucus and Jon Tester.

There is also $8.2 billion to implement the 2005 round of military base closings, both to improve conditions at bases slated for troop increases and to assist states and localities in preparing closed bases for economic development projects and other uses.

Bush and his allies on Capitol Hill have attacked Democrats for spending too much money during the current appropriations round.

Before passing the measure, senators voted 76-15 to add $100 million in unrelated funding to help the cities of Minneapolis and Denver host next year's political conventions. Equal funding to pay for added security was awarded to the host cities of the 2004 conventions four years ago.

The bill now goes to conference to work out differences with the House version of the bill.