House OKs $788B spending bill for Pentagon, border wall
Washington — The House passed a $788 billion spending bill Thursday that combines a $1.6 billion down payment for President Donald Trump’s controversial border wall with Mexico with a whopping budget increase for the Pentagon.
The 235-192 vote both eases a large backlog of unfinished spending bills and gives Trump and his House GOP allies political wins heading into the August recess. Challenging hurdles remain in front of the measure, however, which will meet with more powerful Democratic opposition in the Senate.
The 326-page measure would make good on longtime GOP promises to reverse an erosion in military readiness. It would give veterans programs a 5 percent increase and fund a 2.4 percent military pay raise.
GOP leaders used the popularity of the Pentagon and veterans programs to power through Trump’s border wall.
“Every single dime the President requested to start building a wall on our southern border he’s going to get,” said House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif. “Most importantly, we’re sending more to the VA to fix veterans’ health care and reform outdated VA systems.”
Still, a potential government shutdown battle over the U.S.-Mexico wall looms with Senate Democrats this fall. The generous defense spending increases also run afoul of strict spending limits set by an earlier budget law, and there’s been no progress on a bipartisan budget deal that would be a prerequisite for the higher spending to take full effect.
The House added Trump’s wall funding by a 230-196 procedural vote that denied angry Democrats an up-or-down vote. The wall gets low marks in public opinion polls and is opposed by many of the GOP’s more moderate lawmakers.
Trump promised at nearly every rally and campaign event that Mexico would pay for the wall. Mexico said no, and U.S. taxpayers will have to provide the money.
“The president has promised this funding, the American people want this funding, and today the House is making good on that promise,” said Rep. Steven Palazzo, R-Miss.
Critics say that existing fencing is more than enough and that the portions of the border without it are too remote for crossings and that tribal law, environmental requirements, and personal property rights have blocked fencing for most of the rest.
“Nobody would know it from the President’s hysterical rhetoric, but there are already 700 miles of fence down there on the border — vehicular fencing, pedestrian fencing,” said Rep. David Price, D-N.C. “I know about it because most of that fencing was built when I was chairman of the homeland security appropriations subcommittee.”
At issue are the spending bills passed by Congress each year to fund the day-to-day operations of federal agencies. Trump is pushing for a sweeping increase for the Pentagon and commensurate cuts of more than $50 billion, or 10 percent, from domestic agencies and foreign aid. House Republicans are responding by adding even more for defense but have significantly scaled back Trump’s cuts to domestic programs like community development grants and medical research.
GOP leaders had hoped to advance a broader “omnibus” package that would have included each of the 12 measures. But the GOP rank and file balked, so Republicans devised a smaller bill anchored by the Pentagon budget, funding for veterans programs, and money for the wall.
But most of the sweeping Pentagon increases — which total about $60 billion above current levels and almost $30 billion higher than Trump’s budget — would evaporate next year unless there’s a bipartisan agreement to raise budget “caps” set by a 2011 budget pact. A two-year agreement that eased those “sequestration” spending limits expires in September.
Both Democrats and Republicans in the Senate want additional funding for domestic programs. Democrats have lots of leverage because their votes are needed to pass the funding measures. For now, the Senate is working in a bipartisan fashion on a sharply different set of bills that, on average, are frozen at current levels.
Earlier this year, Congress and Trump came together of spending bills for the current budget year that largely stuck to work done last year under former President Barack Obama. Trump reluctantly signed a $1.2 trillion catchall spending bill in May after his demand for border wall money looked like it would stall the measure.
The current bill, however, reflects the changed balance of power in GOP-controlled Washington. Weapons procurement is a top priority, including two additional littoral combat ships above Trump’s request and 14 unrequested next-generation F-35 fighters.
Democrats said the big gains for now are illusory since automatic budget cuts known as sequestration remain in place.
“We do not give certainty to our defense or confidence to our troops when we legislate with phony numbers, when we refuse to make honest choices about our Defense budget,” said Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. “Instead of giving certainty to our heroes in uniform, this bill would breach the sequester spending limit by more than $70 billion, forcing a mandatory 13 percent cut to all defense accounts.”
Boosting The Pentagon
The measure is anchored by a $659 billion defense funding bill that increases funding for the core Pentagon budget and emergency war accounts by $60 billion over current-year levels and exceeds Trump’s request by $28 billion. The huge increase is a win for GOP defense hawks, with the bulk of the increase going into procurement of new weapons systems, including 84 next-generation F-35 fighters and three ships above the president’s request. War funding exceeds President Donald Trump’s request by $10 billion.
Building The Wall
Almost $1.6 billion is included for three segments of border wall and fencing on the U.S. border with Mexico, including $784 million for 32 miles of new border fencing and $498 million for 28 miles of levee wall in the Rio Grande Valley in Texas; another $251 million would building back-up fencing in the heavily fortified San Diego area. The administration is still devising its plans for the remainder of the multi-billion-dollar project and is reviewing proposals by contractors.
Increases For Veterans
Includes $78.3 billion for the VA, almost $4 billion above current spending. Veterans’ medical care alone takes up $69 billion, enough to treat about 7 million patients. Funding is also included for longtime projects to modernize VA medical records and reduced a backlog of VA disability claims.
Gop Energy Priorities
The measure cuts spending on renewable energy programs favored by Democrats by almost $1 billion while rejecting most of Trump’s proposed cuts to fossil fuels. Nuclear power would be largely shielded from cuts as well. The bill also includes an almost $1 billion increase for nuclear weapons activities at the Energy Department to modernize the nuclear arsenal. It also seeks clear the way to open the Yucca Mountain nuclear repository, which has been the subject of a bitter battle for decades.
Capitol Hill Housekeeping
Another $3.6 billion would fund Capitol Hill’s own operating budget, including additional funding for lawmakers’ security. It would also continue a longstanding freeze on lawmakers’ salaries at $174,000 per year.
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