House ignores Obama veto threat, passes first 2014 spending bill

The House late Tuesday easily approved the first 2014 spending bill of the year, one that funds military construction and the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).

The bill found broad support from both parties and passed the House in a 421-4 vote. All four "no" votes came from Democrats, but the vast majority of Democrats voted for it, ignoring a threat that President Obama would veto the bill, passing the measure by a clear veto-proof majority.

The legislation spends $73.3 billion, most of which goes to the VA, and includes additional funding to help that department work through a much-criticized backlog of veterans disability claims. It also spends several billion on military construction projects, like hospitals, schools and family housing.

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The only major objection to the bill seemed to be the context in which it was written. Democrats continue to oppose spending bills based solely on the House-passed budget plan and said spending bills should only be pursued after the House and Senate work out a budget agreement.

Democrats also faulted Republicans for pushing ahead with Defense and security-related bills that they prefer and boosting spending in those bills, which would mean reduced budgets for social programs that Democrats have defended.

Republicans ignored these complaints and argued that the process of passing spending bills needs to start. And once House debate turned to the specifics of the construction and VA bill, it generally found support despite the backdrop of the budget talks.

One area of commonality for Republicans and Democrats was the need to get the VA to reduce its backlog of disability claims. The VA has been widely criticized for making more than 800,000 veterans wait for decisions about their benefits, with most of these veterans waiting longer than the 125-day deadline that the VA has set as a goal for handling claims.

The bill includes new funding to help the VA work through these claims.

"The bill includes funding that will jumpstart efforts to clean up the backlog and force DOD and VA to get moving on a system that should have been in place years ago," House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) said during the debate.

But in addition to that carrot, the House also include a few "stick" measures, including an amendment that would cut the salaries of senior VA officials unless the backlog is reduced.

The House also approved amendments to block bonus awards for these officials and strip the VA of $10 million in funds it would normally use for conferences. Instead, that $10 million would go to process disability claims more quickly.

In other votes, members voted against language allowing funds to be used to expand U.S. prisons to house terrorist suspects that are now being held in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and considered dozens of other amendments, including two that would have cut $238 million in spending from the bill.

House passage sends the bill to the Senate, but given the uncertainty about the budget and the process for handling spending bills this year, it's not clear whether or when the Senate will consider it.

Earlier this week, the Obama administration said it would veto the bill, and any other bill that is not passed as part of a comprehensive budget deal. Obama indicated that this deal should also make progress toward restoring the cuts made in the sequester.

House passage also clears the way for the House on Wednesday to consider H.R. 2217, a bill funding the Department of Homeland Security in 2014.

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