A sign on the Department of Veterans Affairs outpatient clinic in Rapid City. (Seth Tupper/South Dakota Searchlight)
WASHINGTON — U.S. House Republicans approved their first government spending bill Thursday, following tense debate about whether the Department of Veterans Affairs should provide abortions in limited circumstances and the GOP’s decision to cut military construction funding.
The 219-211 mostly party-line vote (Rep. Dusty Johnson, R-South Dakota, voted yes) on the Military Construction-VA appropriations bill sends the measure to the Senate, where that chamber’s spending panel has written its own bipartisan version of the legislation. The House and Senate will likely begin working out their differences in a conference committee this fall.
But most House Democrats vehemently opposed their chamber’s bill, arguing the policies GOP lawmakers added in were extreme and the funding levels too low. The legislation would roll back a rule sought by the VA that would allow taxpayer funding of abortions when the health of a pregnant veteran is endangered, along with other limited circumstances.
The bill also targets the funding of gender-affirming care for transgender veterans, the display of LGBTQ Pride flags and diversity, equity and inclusion training.
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“VA is a place that all veterans should feel welcome, included and cared for,” said Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the top Democrat on the spending subcommittee. “All veterans means all veterans, and what this bill does is shameful.”
Wasserman Schultz said the House spending bills for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1 are on a “collision course” with the Senate, where its version of this bill has broad bipartisan support.
Texas Republican Rep. Kay Granger, chair of the full Appropriations Committee, said the House’s Military Construction-VA funding measure “honors” lawmakers’ commitment to veterans while reducing some government spending.
“The bill prioritizes our nations’ heroes by providing critical funding for military bases and facilities, improving the quality of life of our service members and their families, and ensuring veterans are appropriately honored in our cemeteries and battle monuments,” Granger said.
The House bill would provide $17.5 billion for military construction projects and $137.8 billion in nondefense discretionary spending for veterans medical care. Current law provides $19 billion for military construction and $135.2 billion in nondefense discretionary spending for veterans health care.
The House Appropriations Committee released the bill in mid-May and approved the legislation on a party-line vote in mid-June after members on the panel debated and voted on several amendments.
The spending bill includes numerous conservative policy riders, including one that would bar the Department of Veterans Affairs from implementing an interim final rule on abortion access.
That rule says that VA could terminate a pregnancy “when the life or health of the pregnant veteran would be endangered if the pregnancy were carried to term or when the pregnancy is the result of an act of rape or incest.”
In a move that could slightly confuse the VA, Republicans also added in long-standing language on federal funding for abortion access, which says taxpayer dollars can only go toward pregnancy termination when it’s the result of rape or incest, or when it would endanger the life of the pregnant patient. That provision —which does not include a provision for the health of the pregnant veteran, like the interim rule — is generally referred to as the Hyde amendment.
The legislation would bar the Biden administration from closing the Guantánamo Bay detention facility in Cuba, where the U.S. military continues to hold about 30 detainees.
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The United Nations issued a report last month, after an official visited the facility and garnered access to detainees.
The report said the official “identified significant improvements to the conditions of confinement but expressed ‘serious concerns about the continued detention of 30 men and the systematic arbitrariness that pervades their day-to-day, bringing severe insecurity, suffering, and anxiety to all, without exception.’”
UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, also wrote in the report that “closure of the facility remains a priority.”
The House’s spending legislation doesn’t include any dedicated funding for the Defense Department to clean up PFAS or forever chemical contamination on the more than 700 military sites throughout the country where it’s been detected.
Pennsylvania Democratic Rep. Madeleine Dean criticized the GOP for its decision not to include specific PFAS cleanup funding, like the $200 million Democrats provided in the committee report that accompanied last year’s spending law.
“The service members that call these bases work or home have been continually exposed to these forever chemicals, as have their neighbors in the surrounding area,” Dean said. “Congress and the White House have a responsibility to protect our current and future service members as well as their neighbors.”
Dean said the forever chemicals, or PFAS, can harm people’s health in several ways, including possible decreased fertility, increased risk of cancer, obesity and thyroid hormone disruption.
The bill bars the VA from using any funding “for surgical procedures or hormone therapies for the purposes of gender affirming care.”
It prohibits spending any taxpayer dollars to display any flag at a VA facility or national cemetery other than the U.S. flag, a state or territory’s flag, a tribal flag, a department flag, an Armed Services flag, or the POW/MIA flag. The language is intended to prevent flying the LGBTQ pride flag.
The bill bars funding from being used “for any office, programs, or activity for the purposes of diversity, equity, and inclusion training or implementation.”
Crisis line, cannabis, masks
Lawmakers added more than 30 amendments to the bill during floor debate, including an amendment from North Carolina Republican Rep. Richard Hudson that added $10 million in additional funding for the veterans crisis line.
The House also added a provision that would allow veterans to enroll in state-run medical cannabis programs without VA interference. The bipartisan amendment was backed by Florida Republican Brian Mast, Oregon Democrat Earl Blumenauer, Ohio Republican Dave Joyce, California Democrat Barbara Lee, Massachusetts Democrat Jim McGovern and Florida Republican Matt Gaetz.
House lawmakers adopted an amendment from Montana Republican Matt Rosendale that would bar the VA from keeping COVID-19 mask mandates in its medical facilities.
Lawmakers rejected several amendments to the bill, including two proposals that would have reduced spending on NATO’s Security Investment Program.
The first proposal from Tennessee Republican Rep. Andy Ogles would have cut the account by $3 million while a different amendment from Georgia GOP Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene would have cut $73 million for the program.
An amendment from Greene that would have cut $86 million for the VA’s Office of Resolution Management, Diversity and Inclusion was also rejected.
Second spending bill postponed
House Republicans were scheduled to debate a second spending bill this week, the Agriculture and rural development funding bill that includes spending on the Food and Drug Administration, but leadership pulled that from the calendar mid-week.
It’s likely that the bill, drafted by Maryland GOP Rep. Andy Harris, didn’t have the votes to pass the House amid disagreements on total spending for the upcoming fiscal year.
The House Appropriations Committee has written the dozen annual bills to funding levels well below the bipartisan agreement that Speaker Kevin McCarthy and President Joe Biden negotiated earlier this year when they brokered a debt limit agreement.
But those lower funding levels on discretionary programs, which make up about one-third of annual federal spending, aren’t low enough for the far-right Freedom Caucus.
That group has been calling for House Republican leaders to cut additional spending and discount so-called budget gimmicks that claw back already approved federal spending and then reallocate it to spending in the GOP bills.
Some of the Freedom Caucus’ members are already forecasting a partial government shutdown later this year. The soonest that could happen is Oct. 1, the start of the new fiscal year.
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