WASHINGTON — Senate lawmakers approved a “minibus” of appropriations bills Monday that could result in next year’s Veterans Affairs and military construction funding being finished before the start of the new fiscal year.
That would represent a significant legislative victory for Congress, given the lengthy delay in most appropriations measures in recent years.
In 2016, just a few weeks before the presidential election and a few days before the next fiscal year, lawmakers finalized their VA and military construction budget plan. It’s the only time in the last five years that Congress has met that deadline for funding any portion of federal operations.
The Senate’s 86-5 vote to approve the multi-agency appropriations package — along with VA money, it includes fiscal 2019 funding for the energy and water programs and the legislative branch — comes three weeks after the House passed a similar combined budget deal.
Now the two separate funding plans will head to a conference committee, where lawmakers will have about three months to negotiate a final agreement.
Senators have proposed $86.4 billion in discretionary spending for VA programs in fiscal 2019, 5.7 percent above the department’s fiscal 2018 budget and about $1.1 billion more than what the White House and House lawmakers have backed.
Senate appropriators said the extra money is spread across a host of different programs, and will help cover increasing demands being placed on VA operations.
But fiscal conservatives in Congress have lamented the ever-growing size of the VA budget and warned that unchecked raises cannot continue indefinitely.
Combined with mandatory spending, the Senate proposal totals nearly $196 billion for VA operations in fiscal 2019. When the war in Afghanistan began in fiscal 2001, the VA budget totaled less than $49 billion. In fiscal 2009, it was $93.7 billion, less than half the current target.
Another issue that conference officials will have to resolve is whether to exempt certain department accounts from future spending caps, a move that advocates have said is necessary given the health care overhaul legislation signed into law by President Donald Trump last month.
White House officials have resisted the idea, preferring instead that any new VA spending be offset by cuts elsewhere in the budget. But veterans groups have said that could negatively impact other services.
Both the House and Senate measures include $10.3 billion in military construction funds, in line with administration plans.
That includes $1.6 billion for military housing projects, nearly 11 percent above fiscal 2018 levels. Another $361 million is earmarked for construction and alterations at military medical facilities, and $368 million more for improvements at DOD schools.
The House is expected to finalize its draft of the defense appropriations bill for fiscal 2019 this week, and the Senate Appropriations Committee’s defense panel will unveil its draft of the legislation on Tuesday.
But work on that appropriations package is expected to be more problematic, given that Democrats in both chambers are unlikely to support any military funding plan until fights on several non-defense budget measures are settled.
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.