September 30, 2008 – In a busy Saturday session, the Senate gave final approval to defense policy and funding bills for the new fiscal year and also sent two veterans’ bills to the White House for President Bush’s signature.
Senate passage of the defense authorization bill, which sets policy, and an omnibus appropriations bill, which includes funding for defense and military construction programs, represents the final step in approving the 2009 defense budget – a process that ended up taking several days of around-the-clock negotiations, said Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., the Senate Armed Services Committee chairman who led negotiations to complete work on the policy bill.
Levin said the bill “contains many provisions that will improve the quality of life for our men and women in uniform, give them the tools that they need to defend our nation, and provide critical reforms to improve operations in the Pentagon.”
The policy bill, S 3001, and the appropriations bill, HR 2638, combine to authorize and fund a 3.9 percent military pay raise that will take effect Jan. 1.
The House passed the defense authorization bill and the final omnibus funding bill Sept. 24.
The Bush administration had many objections to the policy and funding bills during the legislative process, but the final compromise bills appear to have resolved the major problems. White House officials have given no indication of a possible veto of either measure.
Two omnibus veterans’ bills also passed the Senate on Saturday.
The Veterans Benefits Improvement Act, S 3023, includes an order to the Department of Veterans Affairs to simplify the notices sent to veterans about disability claims so they are easier to understand; improve the veterans home loan guarantee program to make it easier to refinance loans; and make it easier for the spouses of disabled service members to use VA education benefits.
The bill also attempts to strengthen the Uniformed Services Employment and Re-employment Act by stepping up enforcement against employers who violate the law and by requiring federal agencies to train their human resources staff on the requirements of the law.
“The federal government often violates this law because federal hiring managers simply do not understand what it requires and how to apply it,” said Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina, ranking Republican on the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee.
The Veterans’ Mental Health and Other Care Improvements Act, S 2162, has several provisions aimed at improving substance abuse treatment. It sets a minimum level of care, expands treatment programs and mandates a review of staffing levels at residential mental health facilities.
It also expands VA reimbursement for community hospitals providing emergency treatment to veterans and orders a three-year pilot program in which veterans in highly rural areas can use local health care facilities for treatment.
Since both veterans’ bills previously passed the House, they join a pile of legislation that will be sent to the White House over the next couple of weeks to be signed into law.