WASHINGTON – The Bush administration agreed Wednesday to ask Congress for more money to meet veterans' health care expenses after disclosing last week a politically embarrassing $1 billion shortfall in the program.
Nicholson said the administration will come up with a specific amount it wants later this week.
Democrats have been drumming the GOP to boost veterans spending since spring, telling them that signs of underfunding shouldn't be ignored.
"I warned my colleagues that what was an emergency would become a crisis if we didn't work together to address the problem," said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash. "That emergency has indeed become a crisis."
Just a day earlier, both VA officials and House Republicans claimed the agency could juggle other accounts to cover the shortfall, some of it due to unanticipated costs of caring for veterans returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan.
Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (search), R-Texas, said the VA and White House agreed to seek emergency money after Senate Republicans moved swiftly to minimize the political fallout. Democrats have spent this week portraying the underfunding as the latest example of the Bush administration's shortsightedness.
"I'm frankly frustrated to be put into this situation ... but this Congress will not fail our nation's veterans," said Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho.
House Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman Steve Buyer, R-Ind., said the decision shows "how policy really also is good politics."
The maneuver cut off Democrats preparing to pounce on the shortfall with their own spending amendment, demanding a $1.4 billion injection into veterans programs. House Democrats have unsuccessfully tried to pry several spending bills open to add more money for veterans health care.
Nicholson told lawmakers for the first time last week that his department now expected veterans' health care costs this year to exceed what was budgeted for them by $1 billion. He acknowledged during hearings Tuesday that he had indications as early as April that might be the case.
About one-quarter of the shortfall stems from underestimates of the number of veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan, but overall enrollment by veterans of all combat eras has exceeded the department's estimates, he said.
Buyer asked Nicholson to refine his $1 billion estimate and report a more exact budget shortfall on Thursday.
Democrats called the shortfall a symptom of President Bush's mismanagement of the war in Iraq, as the president appealed for the nation's patience for "difficult and dangerous" work ahead in Iraq.
"It's distressing because our veterans deserve better than an administration focused on cutting corners and hiding costs while engaged in a war abroad," said Rep. Sam Farr, D-Calif.
Nicholson said Tuesday the VA intended to cover its $1 billion in unexpected health care costs this year by drawing on a $400 million budgetary cushion and $600 million for building maintenance and operations.
Republicans said they became increasingly worried that veterans services would suffer if the VA robbed its other accounts to pay for urgent health care expenses.
Nicholson had told lawmakers the VA also needs $1.5 billion to fill expected health care needs next year.
That includes $375 million to refill the cushion that would be depleted this year; $700 million for the department's increased workload; and $446 million to offset an error in estimating long-term care costs.
Congress has already added roughly $1 billion to the administration's budget request for veterans next year after lawmakers rejected Bush's call for large co-payments for all veterans and new health care fees for some of them.