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VA's Cabinet status is slow in coming. VETS IN THE WHITE HOUSE

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Promotion of the Veterans Administration to a full Cabinet-level department seemed a sure thing after President Reagan endorsed the idea last month. But negative publicity and skeptical senators have since thrown roadblocks in front of the veterans' juggernaut. Key Senate hearings on the subject won't be held until late February.

Vet groups and their congressional allies had pressed for much quicker action, to take advantage of the burst of political momentum.

``Right now this is still a good bet to pass. But the longer it sits there and the more people ask questions about it'' the more uncertain its future becomes, says a congressional aide who works on the issue.

Still to be examined, say congressional sources, are such questions as whether there should be a cap on VA spending, how many political appointees the new department might have, and what lessons can be drawn from the creation of the Departments of Energy and Education.

``Some of the momentum has been taken off,'' says another congressional aide. ``Instead of a boil, it's now on a low simmer.''

The Veterans Administration was born in 1930, when President Herbert Hoover signed an order establishing it as an independent agency within the executive branch.

From their solemn beige headquarters across Lafayette Square from the White House, VA officials run a huge disability compensation and pension program. They administer the nation's largest health-care system, a home-loan assistance program, and US national cemeteries.

The idea of elevating the VA to Cabinet status has been kicking around Washington almost since the agency's founding. Bills to that effect have been introduced in the last 17 Congresses.

Proponents say the VA deserves to sit at the Cabinet table because it is one of the largest components of the federal government. The 1987 VA budget of $27 billion was bigger than that of 10 Cabinet-level departments. Only the Department of Defense employs more people.

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