published Tuesday, June 4th, 2013

House passes measure boosting veterans’ programs

WASHINGTON — The House on Tuesday passed the first of 12 spending bills for the budget year beginning Oct. 1, a popular measure providing more money for veterans’ programs like health care.

The boost for veterans came even as Republicans controlling the chamber marched ahead with a plan that would require most other domestic programs to absorb even deeper cuts next year than those in place now after the imposition of across-the-board spending cuts.

Those cuts, known as sequestration, would wring more than $100 billion from the $3.6 trillion federal budget, most of which comes from the approximately $1 trillion “discretionary” portion of the budget approved by Congress each year to fund the day-to-day operations of federal agencies.

The veterans’ measure passed by a 421-4 vote Tuesday evening, even though the White House already had weighed in with a veto threat. The White House doesn’t have a problem with the substance of the veterans’ bill; rather it opposes the broader GOP spending plan, saying it would force destructive cuts to programs like Head Start pre-school for the poor, medical research and federal law enforcement. The White House and its Democratic allies in Congress support spending levels more than $90 billion — about 9 percent — above those called for by the tea party-driven House.

Republicans are coping with the shortfall by slashing across a broad swath of domestic programs, forcing cuts in the range of 20 percent, for instance, to a huge domestic spending bill that funds aid to local school districts, health research and enforcement of labor laws. Cuts to domestic agencies are magnified by a move to restore $28 billion in sequester-imposed cuts to the Pentagon.

The GOP strategy is to, early on, advance popular, bipartisan bills like the veterans’ measure and a homeland security bill to be debated Wednesday, and then bring up bills making deep cuts later in the summer — if at all. Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the No. 2 House Democrat, predicted Tuesday that the Appropriations Committee would fail to approve all of the 12 bills for lack of money.

The GOP strategy was on ample display Tuesday as Appropriations Committee Chairman Harold Rogers, R-Ky., unveiled two additional spending bills: an almost $600 billion measure funding the Pentagon and overseas military operations; and a measure providing $19.5 billion in discretionary appropriations to the Agriculture Department and $97 billion more for food stamps and school lunches. Republicans hope to win Democratic support for both measures.

The agriculture measure, for instance, contains $6.7 billion for a popular program that gives food aid to pregnant women and their babies. That’s $487 million below President Barack Obama’s request, but Republicans say the amount in the bill should be sufficient because of decreased enrollment and lower food costs. Democrats are unhappy with the cut to the Women, Infants and Children program as well as cuts to Obama’s requests for overseas food aid and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, which is charged with enforcing the 2010 overhaul of Wall Street regulations.

The defense measure contains $513 billion for core Pentagon operations and $86 billion for operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. It’s $5 billion below legislation that passed Congress in March but would restore the sequester cuts that have automatically cut the March measure by about 7 percent.

It reprises an existing provision that requires the Pentagon to keep accused terrorists and other prisoners at the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, rather than allow them to be transferred to U.S. soil for civilian trials. The veterans bill, which also would fund military base construction, contains a companion provision blocking potential efforts to upgrade military facilities to accommodate Guantanamo detainees.

The veterans’ measure also contains additional money to process disability claims to ease lengthy backlogs.

Rep. Jon Runyan, R-N.J., who represents Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, succeeded in winning voice vote approval of an amendment putting the House on record against a new round of military base closures.

The House also broke mostly along party lines in favor of renewing current law that blocks the use of taxpayer funds to build or renovate facilities in the U.S. to house suspected terrorists and other prisoners from Guantanamo Bay.

The 254-170 vote was the first tally in Congress since President Barack Obama said last month that he was still determined to close the facility. Obama first made that promise more than four years ago but has been consistently rebuffed by lawmakers, even when Democrats controlled Congress in his first two years in office.

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