Senate appropriators approved plans for nearly a 3 percent increase in the Veterans Affairs Department's budget next year, slightly above what House lawmakers approved earlier this month and slightly below what White House officials had asked for.

The move all but guarantees the department will see yet another money boost next year, despite tightening budget and spending caps on most other federal agencies.

Since the start of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, VA's budget has risen by almost $100 billion, nearly triple the department's total spending in the late 1990s.

But the Senate plan also sets up a potentially contentious summer conference fight over next year's VA budget.

Hill conservatives want to curb some of that growth and have pushed for reductions in VA construction funding until high-profile problems with the program are resolved. VA officials insist the White House's full budget request is critical to keep outreach and reform efforts on track.

The Senate Appropriations Committee approved a total VA budget of $163.7 billion for fiscal 2016 operations, about $500 million above the House plan and $850 million below the Obama administration's request.

The differences in the plans all come in discretionary spending, which totals $69.2 billion in the Senate version.

The House plan would trim hundreds of millions in requested spending from major and minor construction accounts, while the Senate's would trim about $100 million in requests for nonrecurring maintenance at medical facilities.

Both plans call for $255 million less than the White House wants for Veterans Health Administration budget accounts, cuts that VA leaders have decried as potentially taking away medical care from tens of thousands of veterans.

But Republican planners say those accounts are fully funded without the extra boost, and have accused VA officials of not doing enough to be responsible fiscal stewards in many areas, particularly construction and administrative spending.

Democrats in both chambers objected to those trims and broader Republican plans to keep mandatory spending caps on a host of federal agencies in fiscal 2016, which they argued has limited spending even on the uncapped VA accounts.

The Senate committee bill must still pass the full Senate before conference committee work can begin on a final deal.

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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