In an election-year bow to an agency that serves one-third of all Americans, the Senate today overwhelmingly approved legislation giving the Veterans Administration a seat in the President's Cabinet.
The bill was approved 84 to 11. Negotiators will work out technical differences between the bill and a version the House passed last November, just a week after it was recommended by President Reagan.
The secretary of veterans' affairs would be the 14th Cabinet secretary and the fifth added since 1960.
11 Senators Opposed
Voting against elevating the Veterans Administration to Cabinet level were Sens. William L. Armstrong (R-Colo.), Daniel J. Evans (R-Wash.), Jake Garn (R-Utah), Gordon J. Humphrey (R-N.H.), Nancy Landon Kassebaum (R-Kan.), James A. McClure (R-Ida.), William Proxmire (D-Wis.), Dan Quayle (R-Ind.), Warren B. Rudman (R-N.H.), Alan K. Simpson (R-Wyo.) and Steve Symms (R-Ida.).
Earlier today, the Senate agreed to allow veterans to appeal to the courts when their claims for benefits are denied by the VA. That measure would also repeal a provision, enacted at the end of the Civil War, that prohibits lawyers from charging more than $10 to press a claim for a veteran.
This bill, approved on an 86-11 vote, has failed four times in the House in recent years, apparently because of fears that lawyers would replace the voluntary organizations, including American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars, in dealing with the VA.
Nevertheless, Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Alan Cranston (D-Calif.) said, "I think this time we have enough momentum to get this measure approved by the full Congress."
'I've Missed Something'
The committee concluded that elevation of VA to the Cabinet "would best serve America's veterans, the American public and, ultimately, the President of the United States through strengthening of the Cabinet as a policy-making mechanism."
Simpson, a former chairman of the committee, said he saw no rational reason for the bill. "If anybody believes veterans need a stronger voice . . . than they already have, then I've missed something in the nine years I've been here."
The VA, created in 1930, has the third-largest work force in the federal government, exceeded only by the Defense Department and the Postal Service. It has a $28-billion annual budget and 240,000 employees, administers almost 90,000 patient beds in 534 health facilities and last year had 20 million outpatient visits.
The Congressional Budget Office estimates that raising the VA's status will cost $33 million over five years.