Senate lawmakers advanced plans for a $166 billion Veterans Affairs Department budget for fiscal 2016, a potential next step not only for veterans program funding but also a broader budget deal for all federal spending.
The military construction and VA spending measure is the first fiscal 2016 appropriations bill to make it through both chambers of Congress, although revisions from the $163 billion House plan mean it will have to go through further negotiations before it can head to the White House for President Obama's final signature.
How soon that might happen is unclear. While the Senate passed the measure by an overwhelming 93-0 vote, leaders in that chamber said they see the legislation as a potential vehicle for a larger omnibus budget deal, one that is still being negotiated in advance of the Dec. 11 deadline facing lawmakers.
In late October, White House and congressional leaders announced the framework for a two-year budget deal that lifted spending caps both for defense and nondefense spending.
The move appeared to calm Democrats who had signaled an intent to stall the fiscal 2016 appropriations process over funding fights, but the specifics of each agency's appropriations still must be finalized by Congress. The two parties are still sparring over possible riders that might be attached to those measures, on such issues as immigration and abortion.
Senate passage of the VA budget bill gives lawmakers some momentum toward a budget compromise, and could give VA leaders an unexpected funding boost for the fiscal year.
VA leaders repeatedly have lamented earlier congressional plans to trim about $900 million from the president's budget request for the department. On Tuesday, before the Senate vote, Republican leaders added about $2 billion to the budget total, to cover unmet medication and benefits requests made by department leaders.
That move prompted Democrats to drop their concerns about the earlier funding levels, and would give a boost of 4 percent to department spending over fiscal 2015.
VA has seen its total budget nearly triple since the late 1990s, but department officials have insisted that increased demand on services still leave potential shortfalls in health care and facility construction funds.
The Senate plan would give VA about $71 billion in discretionary spending for its fiscal 2016 programs and almost $60 billion more in advance appropriations for fiscal 2017.
Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., chariman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Veterans Affairs, praised Tuesday's vote as a step towards helping all veterans
"With $1.1 billion in funding for veterans' care above the president's request and special protections for whistleblowers like doctors and nurses who speak up to protect our vets, I am proud we found a bipartisan path forward," he said in a statement.