Scope of COVID-19 Funding Cuts Emerges as Debt Limit Flashpoint

Roll Call / By Aidan Quigley
Veterans health care funding clawback becomes a top Democratic talking point; GOP denies plan to cut benefits
​Democrats are jumping on the House GOP plan to recoup unspent pandemic aid in their debt limit bill, charging that the move will harm agencies counting on that funding, including the Department of Veterans Affairs. 
The bill, which Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., is hoping to get on the floor this week, would rescind $72 billion in unobligated pandemic relief aid.
A new analysis compiled by House Appropriations Committee Democrats tallied up the major sources of untapped COVID-19 cash.
Nearly $17 billion is sitting in Department of Health and Human Services coffers for things like research and testing of vaccines and therapeutics, payments to hospitals and nursing homes, and genomic sequencing of COVID-19 samples to identify variants. Almost $6 billion would come out of unspent Transportation Department funds for highway, aviation and transit agencies.
“Rescinding this funding would eliminate critical resources for mayors and governors to keep their airports open, trains running, and buses operating to get their essential workers to and from their jobs to keep our economy and people alive,” the Democrats' memo states. 
But few issues carry the political resonance as potential cuts to veterans benefits, and Democrats have been aiming their fire particularly at over $2 billion sitting in VA health accounts that the debt limit bill would cancel.
Rescinding that money would “dramatically limit the ability for VA to provide healthcare services both within and outside of VA by clawing back needed funding for medical care,” according to the Democrats' memo.
“I do not understand what my House Republican colleagues are doing, and I am not sure they do either,” House Appropriations ranking member Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., said in a statement.
Rep. Marie Gluesenkamp Perez, D-Wash., introduced an amendment to the debt limit bill Tuesday that would exempt VA funds from the rescission. Under her amendment, the funding would remain available through September 2024.
Perez is a freshman who flipped a GOP-held seat last November, winning the heavily contested race by less than 1 percentage point in a district former President Donald Trump carried by about 4 points two years earlier. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates her 2024 reelection bid a "Toss-up."
Republicans, however, see recouping the money as a layup opportunity to cut spending.
House Appropriations Chairwoman Kay Granger, R-Texas, said during the Rules Committee’s consideration of the debt limit bill that the pandemic spending is not needed and should be directed to other priorities.
“Now that the national emergency is officially over, we should be able to take back those resources,” Granger said.
'Serious questions'
Republicans are pushing back, vowing that veterans health care will be protected in the appropriations process despite the bill’s tight spending caps. They say they already had concerns about the VA’s handling of remaining pandemic funds, which were appropriated in 2020 and 2021. 
House Republicans “have serious questions about VA’s spending of this money in the first place,” House Veterans’ Affairs GOP spokeswoman Kathleen McCarthy said. . .

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