House approves first ’16 spending bill

The House passed its first appropriations bill for the next fiscal year on Thursday after rejecting a controversial amendment prohibiting the use of a Pentagon war fund to pay for military construction projects.

Passage of the $77 billion bill funding the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and military construction, including for housing and bases, fell largely along party lines by a vote of 255-163.

The legislation moved forward a day later than originally planned after GOP leaders pulled the bill from a scheduled vote on Wednesday night. Republicans said the schedule was changed so that the House could first vote on the GOP budget, which was approved just before the first spending bill.

ADVERTISEMENT

The partisan vote followed the near-unanimous support for last year’s VA spending bill. Many Democrats pledged to oppose it this time due to concerns from VA Secretary Robert McDonald that it wouldn't adequately fund veterans' health programs and other services.

President Obama issued a veto threat against the bill, arguing in a Statement of Administration Policy that it “fails to fully fund critical priorities.” The White House also objected to a provision in the bill that prohibits the use of funds to construct or expand any facility to house Guantánamo Bay detainees in the U.S. 

The bill provides a 5.6 percent increase for the VA compared to 2015 levels. However, it still offers more than $1 billion less in funding than President Obama asked for in his 2016 budget request.

Republicans argued that more money for the VA wouldn't solve the agency's problems.

“I can say with absolute certainty the VA's problems stem from poor management, not too little money,” said Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.), who chairs the House Appropriations subcommittee overseeing the VA.

The legislation provides funding for the VA to address its benefits backlog, including $290 million for the paperless claims processing system and $141 million for digital scanning of health records.

Democrats warned that the GOP budget allocations would prove unsustainable while crafting the 12 annual appropriations bills.

“The House Republican 'work harder for less' budget resolution is opposed by every member on my side of the aisle in part because it makes it impossible to provide the funding necessary in the 12 appropriations bills,” said Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.), the top Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee.

Reps. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), the top Democrat on the House Budget Committee, and Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.), a member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, offered an amendment to strike provisions of the bill for military construction projects that use funds from the Pentagon's war fund, known as the Overseas Contingency Operations account.

The strange political bedfellows argued it represented a budgetary “gimmick” to avoid spending caps established by the 2011 budget deal known as the Budget Control Act (BCA).

“Let's not go around the BCA. Let's not use a slush fund or something that is off budget,” Mulvaney said during floor debate. “Let's not be disingenuous.”

But Dent maintained that OCO funds have been used for military construction projects in the past.

“There has been precedent to use OCO money on similar projects in previous years,” Dent said.

The three amendments, which struck each section of the OCO provision, all failed with similar breakdowns. The first Van Hollen-Mulvaney amendment went down 191-229, with one member voting present.

Another contentious amendment to block the Guantánamo Bay provision was defeated by a vote of 167-254.

Democrats called for moving toward closing the detention facility sooner rather than later. 

“Simply put, this section is designed to prevent the closure of Guantánamo,” Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) said of the bill's provision. “How long will we let this shameful episode in American history continue?”

But Dent noted that many Guantánamo Bay detainees are from places like Yemen, making it counterproductive to send them back to their home countries. 

“Many of these prisoners are very difficult to try and too dangerous to release,” Dent said.

Lawmakers also rejected in a narrow 210-213 vote an amendment offered by Rep. Earl BlumenauerEarl BlumenauerMarijuana and the midterms House lawmakers introduce bill to end US support in Yemen civil war Overnight Defense: Mattis dismisses talk he may be leaving | Polish president floats 'Fort Trump' | Dem bill would ban low-yield nukes MORE (D-Ore.) that would allow VA hospital doctors to discuss the use of medical marijuana with patients. 

The House will complete consideration of the second appropriations bill, which funds the Department of Energy and water infrastructure, on Friday. Both the VA-military construction and Energy-Water bills are two of the easiest annual appropriations bills to pass.

If the House had passed the first bill on Wednesday as originally planned, Republicans would have marked the earliest start to the annual appropriations process since 1974. But passage on Thursday instead now means the House is tied with its record last year.

Ten more appropriations bills, including more controversial legislation to fund healthcare programs and foreign aid, remain. The House Appropriations Committee has not even released the bill funding the Departments of Labor and Health and Human Services, which would prove a politically thorny vote for Republicans to fund ObamaCare, in recent years.

The House passed seven out of 12 appropriations measures last year, while the Senate did not pass any. Congress has not enacted all 12 annual appropriations bills in a single year since the 1990s.

Even House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) acknowledged that passage of appropriations bills will likely get harder, potentially throwing a wrench in the GOP's efforts to show they can govern.

“I'm sure it's going to be tough to pass some of these bills,” Rogers said.