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House passes military construction, VA spending bill on party lines

The House passed the first of a dozen appropriations bills on Wednesday largely along party lines, an early victory in Speaker Mike Johnson’s ambitious summer funding pursuit.

The bill funding the Department of Veterans Affairs and military construction projects passed in a 209-197 vote. It’s the first of many hurdles House appropriators must overcome to fulfill their goal of moving all 12 spending bills through the chamber by the August recess, an aggressive timeline ahead of the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30. But final passage of bipartisan spending measures is likely a long way off, since congressional leaders are expected to punt final negotiations until after control of Congress and the White House are decided in November.

The package — loaded with controversial riders on abortion and other social issues — is almost certainly dead on arrival in the Senate but offers a preview of other appropriations bills to come in the House.

Adding to the partisanship, the speaker is promising to use the funding bills in a three-part strategy to overhaul the criminal justice system in the wake of former President Donald Trump’s 34-count felony conviction.

Similar to last year, the House GOP loaded several spending bills with restrictions on abortion rights and gender-affirming care and other contentious provisions putting swing-district Republicans in a tricky position ahead of Election Day.

House Appropriations Committee Chair Tom Cole (R-Okla.) has said he will “work hard from a pro-life position” on abortion-related riders, but has tempered expectations, saying the bills will ultimately have to be bipartisan to make it through the Senate.

The bill passed Wednesday would block the VA from implementing rules that would expand access to abortion, restrict access to gender-affirming care and bar the VA from processing medical claims for undocumented people and from flying Pride flags over its facilities.

Democrats have hammered the legislation for limiting veterans’ reproductive rights and have argued that including the controversial riders is a “waste of time.” The White House has said it would veto the bill.

Four Democrats — Reps. Jared Golden of Maine, Vicente Gonzalez of Texas, Mary Peltola of Alaska and Marie Gluesenkamp Perez of Washington — voted with Republicans. Two Republicans — Reps. Tom McClintock of California and Matt Rosendale of Montana — voted against the bill.

The funding: The measure allocates $147.5 billion across VA and Pentagon programs, with the vast majority going to the VA. Democrats opposed the bill for funding military construction at levels lower than the status quo, although the legislation goes beyond the Biden administration’s request. The bill offers $113 billion for veterans’ medical care, in line with the Biden administration’s request but also lower than fiscal 2024 levels.

Split screen: The House action comes as the Senate is set to vote on legislation guaranteeing access to birth control. Ahead of the November elections, Democrats are attempting to use reproductive rights issues to their advantage.

Amendments: In a 290-116 vote Tuesday, lawmakers tacked on an amendment aimed at ensuring that veterans can take part in states’ medical marijuana programs. It would lift a directive that bars VA medical staff from recommending veterans participate in them.

In a 211-193 vote, lawmakers added a controversial amendment from Rep. Eli Crane (R-Ariz.) that prevents the VA from using funds to submit beneficiaries’ names to an FBI list of those prohibited from having firearms if the agency has appointed a fiduciary for them.

In a vote with some Democratic support, the House adopted an amendment from Rep. Greg Steube (R-Fla.) that would prevent the VA from giving bonuses to senior executives in its central office after the agency has come under scrutiny for doling them out to top officials.

The chamber also overwhelmingly voted in favor of amendments from Rep. David Schweikert (R-Ariz.) aimed at bolstering the use of artificial intelligence at the VA.

Jennifer Scholtes and Caitlin Emma contributed to this report. 

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