House passes first 2015 appropriations bill

The House passed the first fiscal 2015 appropriations bill of the year on Wednesday to fund military construction projects and the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Passed in a 416-1 vote, the $71.5 billion measure would provide $158.2 billion for veterans programs and $6.6 billion for military construction projects. Its passage is the earliest start to the annual appropriations process since 1974.

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) expressed optimism that the House could pass all 12 annual appropriations bills before the August recess, which has not been done in more than a decade. It will still be a challenge for both the House and Senate to clear each individual bill before Oct. 1, but the 2013 budget deal has eased the process for appropriators this year.

"With an agreed-upon budget, an early start, the cooperation of our colleagues on both sides of the aisle, and ample floor time, I believe we can complete our work — our congressional duty — on time, on budget, and under regular order," Rogers said.

The measure would provide $45 billion for VA medical services, such as mental health care, job training and suicide prevention efforts. It would also appropriate $344 million to modernize the VA's electronic health record system.

"The bill before us today touches every sailor, soldier, Marine and airman," said Rep. Sanford Bishop of Georgia, the top Democrat on the House Appropriations Military Construction and Veterans Affairs subcommittee.

Members adopted several amendments by voice vote aimed at addressing the VA benefits claims backlog, including a proposal from Reps. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) and Matt Salmon (R-Ariz.) to increase funding for the department's inspector general by $1 million.

Rep. Keith Rothfus (R-Pa.) also offered an amendment, adopted by voice vote, that would prevent senior VA executives from receiving bonuses in light of the nationwide delays for benefits to receive health and disability benefits. 

"Across the nation, the VA has demonstrated a widespread and systemic lack of accountability," Rothfus said.

But Bishop said that preventing senior VA executives from earning performance rewards would make the agency a less attractive place to work and potentially ward off talent to help fix the problems. 

"This amendment will not provide any solution in the short term, and in fact may have long-term consequences and compound the very problems it attempts to address," Bishop said. "We're throwing out the baby with the bathwater."

Before final passage, the House rejected, 168-249, an amendment offered by Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.) that would eliminate a section of the bill that prohibits funding to construct any facility to house Guantanamo Bay detainees.

Moran said his amendment would help the Obama administration move closer toward closing the Guantanamo Bay detention facility.

"The Obama administration has made some real progress on this issue over the last year. But it's still the case that Guantanamo is a rallying cry for terrorists around the world," Moran said.

Moran also argued that closing the facility would save the federal government money.

"When we're facing the negative effects of sequestration, it just does not make sense to continue what is in effect a permanent scar on our judicial system," Moran said.

But Rep. John Culberson (R-Texas), the House Appropriations Military Construction and Veterans Affairs subcommittee chairman, said detainees did not deserve the same legal rights as American citizens.

"It's essential that this amendment be defeated in order to make sure our enemies are not given the protections of the Constitution," Culberson said.

The issue of medical marijuana also waded into debate over the Military Construction and Veterans Affairs bill. Another amendment offered by Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) would lift the restriction for VA hospital doctors to discuss the use of medical marijuana with patients.

"We've got stupid federal policies that limit the research," Blumenauer said.

But Republicans warned that marijuana, even for medical purposes, would be detrimental to veterans' health.

"This does not belong in the bill," said Rep. John Fleming (R-La.) "We should be helping our veterans, not harming them."

The House ultimately rejected Blumenauer's proposal by a vote of 195-222.

More in Senate

McCain: VA head must punish employees

Read more »