The $1.1 trillion spending bill approved by the Senate over the weekend gives the Pentagon $554 billion for fiscal 2015, gives the Veterans Affairs Department $160 billion, and gives much needed predictability to the federal budget.

The agreement was finalized during a rare weekend voting session to avoid a partial government shutdown. Lawmakers in the House and Senate had to pass two short-term funding extensions in the last few days just to ensure programs and offices could remain open.

But the new omnibus spending measure does more than just extend budget authorities for a few weeks or months. It sets a new budget for the remainder of fiscal 2015 for all federal agencies except the Department of Homeland Security.

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That's something that agency heads — and especially Pentagon budget planners — have been pursuing for years, arguing that temporary spending measures leave too much uncertainty and little room for starting new programs.

President Obama is expected to sign the bill into law in coming days.

Defense Department funding

The spending measure includes $490 billion in base defense spending and another $64 billion in overseas contingency funds.

The total is a drop of almost $18 billion in defense spending from fiscal 2014, with all of that reduction coming from a decrease in the overseas mission funding. The White House had asked for about $200 million more, but the measure still represents an increase of just under 1 percent for the department from fiscal 2014 spending.

It mirrors the defense authorization bill earlier passed by Congress by mandating a 1 percent pay raise for troops in 2015 and a 1 percent reduction in housing stipend inflation growth next year. Civilian employees of the department will also see a 1 percent pay raise next year.

About $5 billion will be set aside for operations against Islamic State militants in Iraq and Afghanistan, including $1.6 billion for training Iraqi and Kurdish security forces. Training and sustainment of Afghanistan security forces will total $4.1 billion.

Lawmakers also included $25 million in new funding for expansion of the military's Special Victims' Counsel Program, which provides sexual assault victims with legal assistance.

That money is designed to build on provisions included in the 2015 authorization bill responding to the crimes, and criticism from outside groups that the department hasn't done enough to prevent sexual assaults in the ranks.

Veterans Affairs funding

For Veterans Affairs, the spending bill includes a 3 percent increase in discretionary funding for next year. It's about $300 million less than the White House requested last spring, but continues the trend of steady increases for veterans services since the start of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In 2004, the total VA budget was just under $64 billion, almost $100 billion less than the fiscal 2015 budget.

The VA funding includes $4.2 billion for programs specific to Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans, $4.6 billion for female veterans programs, and $7.4 billion for the department's efforts to end veterans homelessness.

Lawmakers also included extra funding for the VA Inspector General's Office, to continue work into the department's care delay and records manipulation scandals.

But veterans advocates were happiest about a provision in the spending bill mandating advance funding for all veterans benefit accounts, a provision they've been pushing since the 2013 government shutdown.

VA medical care accounts are already funded a full year in advance, to ensure that budget delays don't disrupt health care programs and services for veterans. But VA benefits aren't included in that provision, and the 16-day shutdown last year threatened veterans' GI Bill payments and other payouts.

With the change, another shutdown won't threaten those benefits.

And the larger spending deal also prevents another shutdown through the end of the fiscal year, Sept. 30, 2015.

Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.

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