The Senate-passed bill would provide $133.9 billion for the Department of Veterans Affairs, and military construction and housing, including $76.7 billion in discretionary spending and $1.4 billion in overseas contingency funding. Discretionary spending would be $439 million over President Obama’s request.
The House-passed version of the spending bill, approved 415-3 on July 10, would provide a total of $133.7 billion in FY10, including $77.9 billion in discretionary budget authority.
The Senate version would supply $53.2 billion in discretionary funding for veterans programs, a $150 million increase over the president’s request and $4 billion more than FY09 levels. It would meet the administration’s $34.7 billion request for the VA medical services account, including $4.6 billion for mental health care and $2.1 billion for medical care for veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Like the House-passed bill, the Senate version also includes $48.2 billion in advance 2011 funding for certain veterans medical programs. The down payment is intended to put the politically sensitive programs on a two-year budget cycle. The Senate version would provide $700 million for the cyber security data center, which is 12.5 percent below Obama’s $800 million request. The House bill would provide about $500 million for the facility, which is expected to cost about $1.5 billion to complete.
On Tuesday, Senators voted 57-43 to kill a measure by James M. Inhofe (R-OK) that would have prohibited funding to build facilities in the United States to hold detainees from the Guantanamo detention center.
The Senate adopted an amendment 98-1 by chairman of the Appropriations Military Construction-VA Subcommittee, Tim Johnson (D-SD) that would set aside $50 million for the renovation of 40 to 50 vacant buildings on VA campuses nationwide. Local organizations would use those buildings to help the estimated 131,000 homeless veterans. The amendment would be offset by a decrease of the same amount to the homeowners assistance fund, which provides mortgage relief to military families required to relocate. Oklahoma Republican Tom Coburn was the lone senator to vote against the amendment.
On Monday, the Senate adopted, 93-0, an amendment by Coburn that would require each federal agency submitting a report to an appropriations committee to post it on their Web site unless it contains proprietary information or if it would compromise national security. The Senate rejected, by a vote of 24-69, a motion offered by Coburn to commit the bill to the Appropriations Committee and add language to increase funding for the care of disabled veterans and payments to caregivers, offset by a reduction in funding for earmarks not requested by the president.
The Military Construction-VA bill is the ninth of the 12 annual spending bills that the Senate has passed this year. Both chambers have passed the Transportation-HUD (HR 3288) and Defense (HR 3326) appropriations measures, but conference reports have not been completed. The Senate has not considered its versions of the Labor-HHS-Education (HR 3293), Financial Services (HR 3170) or State-Foreign Operations (HR 3081) bills.
Senate Majority Leader Reid said on Tuesday that Democrats will try to move a climate and energy bill early next year as part of a larger effort to address the economy. It is unclear how quickly Reid would push a separate jobs bill, potentially mixing increased infrastructure spending, an extension of unemployment insurance and small-business and other incentives.
Senate Environment and Public Works Chairwoman Barbara Boxer said Reid is talking about a separate jobs bill and one on the financial regulatory system before the climate debate. Boxer said she is not worried about the climate bill slipping through the cracks “because a lot of us believe the way to really create jobs is through a very strong global warming bill.”
Past Republican backers of cap-and-trade legislation, including Energy and Natural Resources ranking member Lisa Murkowski and Senator John McCain of Arizona have argued that a House-passed climate bill and the one pending in the Senate would not be the job-booster Democratic leaders are claiming.
Some senators are skeptical to tackle another huge issue after finishing health care. “After you do one really, really big, really, really hard thing that makes everybody mad, I don’t think anybody’s excited about doing another really, really big thing that’s really, really hard that makes everybody mad,” Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO) said. “Climate fits that category.”
Transportation and Infrastructure
Bipartisan support is growing in the House for swift action to authorize more than $200 billion in highway and transit infrastructure funding and then complete a full six-year surface transportation authorization in the spring. The plan, outlined Thursday by John Mica (R-FL) and Peter DeFazio (D-OR), would authorize two years of surface transportation projects up front. Mica is the ranking Republican on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, and DeFazio chairs the Highways and Transit Subcommittee.
Mica and DeFazio said they are pressing Senators to commit to the two-year funding plan, making it a condition for House support of a Senate plan to extend the surface transportation authorization through April. The push for more highway and transit funding is part of a broader effort in Congress to promote job creation. Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) said at her weekly news conference that transportation and infrastructure investment could be a large part of a package of jobs bills.
But while Democratic and Republican House authorizers generally agree on the approach, they remain at odds over how to pay for it. DeFazio said Democrats want to tap unused money from the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP; PL 110-343) to help fund the infrastructure spending spree. Mica said Republicans instead want to reprogram unspent money from the economic stimulus (PL 111-5).
The goal would be to enact the two-year investment program in time for states to plan for the spring construction season. Mica said a six-month surface transportation extension without a longer-term funding commitment would leave states without the funding for long-term projects. DeFazio said Congress should move to overhaul federal transportation policy once it authorizes two years of funding for highway and transit projects.
Senate Environment and Public Works Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-CA) has said her panel wants to pass legislation extending the authorization through April, then turn to work on a multi-year authorization bill.
Since the last highway law (PL 109-59) expired at the end of September, Congress has kept highway and transit money flowing to the states through stopgap appropriations measures. Senate efforts to extend authorization through April have been blocked by objections from several fiscal conservatives.
Boxer and the panel’s ranking Republican, James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma, have asked Senate leaders to force a cloture vote before the end of the year. Oklahoma Republican Tom Coburn (who is one of the Senators that has blocked action on the extension) said he could support using stimulus money, but not TARP funds, for a transportation program.
The House already began its work on a $500 billion, six-year authorization bill that DeFazio’s subcommittee approved in June. The bill has since stalled due to disagreements over how to pay for it.
The Obama administration sought to postpone controversial political decisions, such as whether to raise gasoline taxes, until after the 2010 elections by urging lawmakers to enact an 18-month extension and leave an authorization bill to the next Congress.
Senate leaders embraced the administration plan, but House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman James Oberstar (D-MN) with the support of his leadership, has insisted on pursuing this six-year authorization. Oberstar has fought to keep temporary extensions short to maintain pressure on lawmakers to take up the multi-year authorization. But Mica and DeFazio said Oberstar has indicated he would accept the Senate’s extension through April — if the combination of transportation funds is also enacted in December or January. Durbin said Thursday that his goal is to find new funding for transportation spending early next year, but neither stimulus nor TARP money has been discussed.
The Senate will vote at 8 pm Saturday to cut off debate on a motion to proceed to the healthcare reform bill. If 60 members support the motion, the chamber would automatically adopt the motion to proceed to the bill and then depart. The Senate would begin amending the bill after the Thanksgiving recess.
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