The GOP-controlled House has given tentative approval to a $1.6 billion down payment for President Donald Trump's long-promised wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. The controversial wall money is being given a ride on legislation to give the Pentagon a massive spending boost and increase funding for veterans medical care.
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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.
In advancing the broader $788 billion spending bill, slated for a vote on Thursday, Republicans are trying to both ease a large backlog of unfinished spending bills and give both themselves and Trump political wins heading into the August recess.
"As promised to the American people, we are rebuilding and modernizing our military as an international powerhouse," said Rep. Harold Rogers, R-Ky.
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.
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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.
"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 "Most importantly, we're sending more to the VA to fix veterans' health care and reform outdated VA systems."
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.
A fall showdown with Senate Democrats over the wall awaits and 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.
The House is on track to pass the measure along party lines. Democrats are furious that GOP leaders are denying them a vote -- which they believe they might have been able to win -- on killing Trump's border wall. More than 700 miles of fencing and other border barricades were built about a decade ago.
Republicans from border states, swing-district lawmakers, and Republicans representing sizable Hispanic populations tend to oppose the wall but are backing it because the money will be paired with politically sacrosanct funding for troops in the field and health care for veterans.
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.
The current measure, 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 sequestration remains 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."