Budget Impasse Delays Veterans' Benefit Checks

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

The federal budget impasse claimed new victims Thursday as Congress' failure to enact emergency spending authority delayed benefit checks for 3.3 million veterans and survivors and threatened to do the same for 4.7 million needy families.

Although veterans flooded congressional offices with their pleas, legislation to ensure prompt delivery of $1.4 billion in benefits by the new year remained bogged down in the Senate after clearing the House. Partisan cross-fire left the outlook for passage of the measure today unclear.

Even so, growing public impatience with the season's second budget deadlock seemed to motivate political leaders, who resumed negotiations after mostly exchanging invectives the day before.

The delays in the benefit checks marked a sharp escalation in the disruption caused by the partial shutdown, which enters a record seventh day today as the result of the failure of government to enact spending bills on time. To date, the greatest impact has been on 260,000 federal workers, or 13% of the government's work force, who have been furloughed because of the shutdown.

Veterans and their advocates reacted quickly, asserting that the thousands of beneficiaries with no other sources of income would suffer substantial hardship from even one day's delay.

If Congress completes work today on an emergency spending bill, veterans' benefit checks probably will be distributed only one day late. But advocates fear congressional inaction until after the weekend could do considerably more harm.

Tens of thousands of the beneficiaries are veterans of wars who qualify only because they have no other sources of income, advocates said. Another broad category of beneficiaries are disabled veterans who have established that their health was harmed by their military service.

"We're talking about a lot of people who are living paycheck to paycheck," said Phil Budahn, a spokesman for the American Legion. "For them, every day can make a huge difference."

The average veterans' monthly benefit check is $424.

The American Legion heard from one distraught Massachusetts veteran, apparently at the edge of despair, who said that his landlord was threatening to evict him if his check was one day late.

In the Sacramento area, home to thousands of veterans from three nearby Air Force bases, the offices of Rep. Vic Fazio (D-West Sacramento) received calls from veterans worried about paying their rent and meeting medical bills.

Warned by the Clinton administration that delayed action would slow the checks, the House voted Wednesday night, 411 to 1, to pass a temporary spending bill authorizing expenditures only for veterans' benefits.

But Republican leaders never brought the bill to a vote in the Senate because they feared that it would be bogged down by amendments. Indeed, some Democrats said that they hoped the measure could be reshaped to provide funding to restart the entire government.

"If it comes up, it will be amended by lots of people," said Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.).

Dole told colleagues, however, that he planned to bring the veterans' benefits measure up to the floor today.

Another day's delay in passing a temporary spending measure would also slow checks from the Department of Health and Human Services to recipients of the Aid for Families With Dependent Children program. The program is scheduled to spend about $1 billion in January for 4.7 million families, including 9 million children.

In efforts to end the budget standoff, administration officials and Republican leaders met for much of Thursday to try to arrange for a meeting today that would include Clinton. Huddling behind closed doors, negotiators pored over rival budget plans and sought to establish a schedule of meetings in the coming days.

While they did not appear to resolve major differences on tax cuts and spending curbs for health care, the negotiators described the mood as constructive.

White House Chief of Staff Leon E. Panetta, during an afternoon break from the meetings, said that he was "feeling better."

Later, Republican and Democratic officials released a terse statement: "We met through the afternoon. The meetings were constructive. . . . We plan to meet again tomorrow [Friday] at the White House."

Much of Thursday's discussion centered on the growing menu of options that lawmakers are considering to resolve the dispute.

A new, bipartisan Senate plan features curbs and cuts in domestic spending that are greater than those proposed by Clinton but less than those proposed by congressional Republicans. The plan, authored by Sens. John H. Chafee (R-R.I.) and John B. Breaux (D-La.), also would cut back cost-of-living allowances more than either Republicans or the White House have suggested.

"The public is saying: 'Enough is enough'--and we're saying the same thing," Breaux told reporters. He said that at least 18 members of the Senate are sympathetic to the bipartisan plan.

But the spirit of the day was not all bipartisan. House Republicans, stung by recent White House descriptions of them as "extremists," said that they are prepared to keep the government shut down for a long time unless Clinton offers a budget that they believe reaches balance by 2002.

"We think it's time for the president to understand that dillying and dallying--rather than getting serious about the work--has consequences," said House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas).

On the other side, Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) said that unless Congress approves plans to end the shutdown in the next day or two, "I don't foresee any continued negotiations on the budget, at least in the foreseeable future."

"The petulance we saw the last couple of days is unacceptable," he said.

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