WASHINGTON (AP) — The Senate passed its first spending bill of the year on Tuesday, a popular $80 billion measure for veterans' programs and construction projects on military bases long delayed by infighting over the broader budget.
The 93-0 vote sends the measure into House-Senate negotiations, where it is likely to serve as a vehicle for a $1.1 trillion catchall measure that would include 11 other spending bills comprising the approximately one-third of the budget that passes each year at lawmakers' discretion.
The bill exceeds President Barack Obama's request by $1 billion after getting a $2 billion influx of money from the recently-enacted bipartisan budget agreement between Obama and Capitol Hill leaders of both parties. All told, programs covered by the measure would get $8 billion more than current levels.
The measure, passed on the eve of the Veteran's Day holiday, brings the Veterans Administration's budget for medical services to $51 billion, to cover the treatment and care of almost 7 million veterans.
"Veterans who fought on the front lines shouldn't have to stand in line for care and benefits they've earned and deserve," said top Appropriations Committee Democrat Barbara Mikulski of Maryland.
It comes as the VA is still struggling to provide timely care to many veterans and implement legislation that passed last year to permit veterans to seek care outside of the VA system. The measure contains funding to hire 770 additional VA claims processors to ease the claims backlog.
"This bipartisan bill funds veterans' care at record levels — $1.1 billion above what the president requested. With this bill it is my hope that we can confront the systemic retaliation against the medical personnel who try to protect veterans," said Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., lead author of the measure.
The annual veterans and military construction bill is invariably the most popular of the 12 annual appropriations bills, but this year's measure was delayed as Democrats bottled up the annual appropriations process to force Republicans controlling Congress to negotiate on lifting tight budget caps on both the Pentagon and domestic agencies.
Negotiators face a Dec. 11 deadline to work out the broader omnibus spending bill, which is likely to easily top 1,000 pages. Negotiations over funding levels will be eased by a big infusion of money by the budget agreement but difficult hurdles remain over policy "riders" sought by Republicans.
Obama has succeeded in prior negotiations in keeping omnibus spending measures from being packed with too many such riders, but Republicans hope for gains on policy matters since they took over the Senate this year.