House members on Thursday approved plans for a 2.5 percent hike in Veterans Affairs Department funding next year despite a presidential veto threat over what the White House sees as a $1.4 billion funding shortfall.
The VA and military construction budget bill — approved by a 255 to 163 vote, largely along party lines — would set aside $171 billion for the two accounts, with almost a 6 percent increase in discretionary funding for the programs from last year's levels.
The plan would cover $163.2 billion in VA spending next fiscal year, which supporters noted would continue a steady line of raises for the department since the start of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But it comes in $1.4 billion under what the White House had requested for VA spending in fiscal 2016, money that department officials say will stymie construction efforts and reduce some medical care access.
On Tuesday, the White House threatened to veto the measure over the shortfall, saying it "fails to fully fund critical priorities." Administration officials also complained more broadly about larger Republican-backed budget plans that would keep Budget Control Act spending caps in place for federal agencies.
VA Secretary Bob McDonald earlier this month said the request cut "will cause veterans to suffer."
In advance of the vote, a host of veterans organizations also protested the move, saying the full White House request is needed to keep department reforms on track, calling the proposal "suffocating the system."
But House Republicans turned down multiple attempts by Democrats to restore the funding, saying their total represents a healthy and responsible increase for the department.
"This is not a cut," said Rep. Charlie Dent, R-Pa., chairman of the House Appropriations Committee's VA panel. "Did we fund every last thing requested? Not every idea has merit."
In particular, Republicans rejected plans to double VA construction funding next year in the wake of high-profile problems with management of several new builds, including a Denver hospital estimated to cost $
1 billion more than originally expected.
VA officials have promised fixes to those problems, but also insisted that slowing down funding to other projects will only hurt veterans' access to health care.
The measure also includes provisions banning bonuses for VA senior executives and construction officials, in light of public criticism of both groups.
The vote was expected to be a relatively easy start for the Republicans' appropriation process, but was delayed a day after a bipartisan group of fiscal conservatives and Democrats attempted to add an amendment limiting funds in temporary war spending accounts, a move that leadership plans on using to boost next year's defense budget and get around the spending caps.
The Senate still has to offer its own version of the VA and military construction spending bill before the two can be reconciled and sent to the White House.
That process is expected to take several more months, although House officials noted this is the earliest they've started the appropriations process in four decades.
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.