WASHINGTON — House Republicans who have spent months demanding spending cuts blanched Wednesday at their first opportunity to actually make them, instead joining Democrats in treating a bill to pay for veterans programs in 2011 as politically sacrosanct in an election year.
The veterans measure is the first of a dozen spending bills for the upcoming 2011 budget year to come up for a vote. Democrats, meanwhile, were doing some ducking and weaving of their own to avoid time-consuming floor debates and politically difficult votes on other measures.
It's of little surprise that Democrats picked the Veterans Affairs bill as the first in the appropriations pile to bring to a vote. It passed by a 411-6 vote.
Only a handful of others are likely to get as far before the November election, even though all 12 are supposed to pass both the House and Senate and be signed by the president before Oct. 1. Last year at this time, the House had passed all 12 bills.
House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, offered the only amendments to cut the veterans bill but withdrew them as soon as Democrats started making political hay out of them.
Boehner wanted to cut the Veterans Affairs Department's rapidly growing policy office as well as its congressional lobbying operation and skim $45 million from the VA's $3.3 billion request for computer systems, which the agency itself admits was too high.
Still, Democrats howled.
"I couldn't believe it. You're coming into an election and you're taking money away from veterans," said Veterans Committee Chairman Bob Filner, D-Calif. "I guess that's their definition of supporting the troops."
A spokesman for Boehner said the GOP leader withdrew the amendments so that other Republicans could have a chance to offer theirs. But Boehner only did so after Democrats made it plain they were eager to award him votes and go on the attack.
Veterans programs are hardly hurting. The VA's so-called discretionary budget – the portion adopted by Congress each year – has risen 70 percent over the last five years and would receive a 7 percent boost for next year. Lawmakers say such increases are required by the large number of wounded veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan.
Republicans instead offered various ideas to increase veterans spending, including proposals for renewable energy projects at VA hospitals, health care for women veterans, and a paralympics sports program for disabled veterans.
By contrast, Republicans had lots of ideas for cutting transportation and housing programs in anticipation of a floor debate on Thursday, including cuts to Amtrak, the Washington-area Metro system, and across-the-board cuts to agencies.
"Wait until tomorrow," Boehner said.
Republicans also complained about a $701 million border measure that passed shortly afterwards. They argued that $500 million for 1,200 additional border patrol agents and for other steps to try to control the U.S.-Mexico border wasn't paid for with cuts to other programs.
Still, Republicans didn't force a roll call vote that would have put GOP lawmakers on record against the measure. It instead passed by voice vote, along with a $129 million measure to speed processing of patent applications.
The underlying $77 billion veterans measure is the easiest for Congress to pass each year because of the popularity of the programs and the high regard that the public holds for the military. This year's bill includes money to reduce a backlog in processing health claims, additional funding for community health centers and big increases to treat conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and traumatic brain injury.
On the other side of the Capitol, the notoriously balky Senate has made it plain it doesn't have much time to burn on routine spending bills. As a result, House Democratic leaders appear to have little enthusiasm for taking difficult votes and taking weeks of debate to pass bills that the Senate doesn't have time for.
The Senate Appropriations panel has approved half the bills, but it doesn't appear that the full chamber will debate any until mid-September at the earliest.
"We're trying to move some of them and see what the Senate does," said House Appropriations Chairman David Obey, D-Wis. "The Senate seems to be moving on a different track than we are, but at least they're moving."
The once-bipartisan House committee have become bitterly polarized as Republicans have sought to force Democrats to cast politically difficult votes.
For example, Obey postponed debate and action on the bill to pay for homeland security programs after Republicans signaled they would offer amendments to block the Obama administration's attempts to nullify Arizona's controversial immigration law. A federal judge on Wednesday put the most significant portions of the Arizona law on hold.