WASHINGTON – The House passed a $37.4 billion budget bill for the Department of Homeland Security on Friday, but minority Republicans rallied enough votes to uphold a promised veto by President Bush.
No such fate awaits an even more generous bill funding veterans programs and military base construction, which cruised to overwhelming passage later in the afternoon.
The Homeland Security bill was approved by a 268-150 vote. The measure exceeds Bush's request for the department by $2.1 billion, or 6 percent, thus drawing a veto threat from the White House. The administration has pledged to keep overall spending passed by Congress this year to limits proposed in Bush's February budget.
"Today we reminded them that there will be reasonable limits to that spending in securing the votes necessary to uphold a presidential veto," said Minority Whip Roy Blunt, R-Mo.
But the White House is giving a free pass to a politically sacrosanct bill funding veterans' programs, which passed the House Friday afternoon by a 409-2 vote. That measure exceeds Bush's request by $4 billion, or 7 percent.
Last month, the White House signaled its desire to veto the veterans bill for violating Bush's budget "caps." But Republicans on Capitol Hill have made it clear that with troops overseas, they're not interested in facing off with Democrats over veterans spending and that any veto would have been overridden.
The bill provides a 13 percent increase for the veterans medical services account.
The increases build on prior-year funding boosts in response to long waiting periods to enter the VA health system and increasing caseloads from armed forces members wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"It means we will hire more qualified doctors and nurses to improve medical services to our veterans and to reduce waiting times for doctors' appointments," said Rep. Chet Edwards, D-Texas. "For veterans with traumatic brain injury ... and lost limbs, it means renewed hope to rebuild their lives."
The Homeland Security bill is the first of the 12 annual spending bills to pass the House and did so only after Democrats yielded Thursday to GOP protests on the handling of lawmakers' pet projects.
The measure contains budget boosts to hire 3,000 new border security agents and double the amount of air cargo that is screened before being loaded onto passenger planes. It also roughly doubles grants given to localities for mass transit and port security.
All told, Democrats plan spending increases for annual agency budgets funded at Congress' discretion of about $23 billion above Bush's February budget request. The moves have prompted the White House to promise vetoes of bills exceeding Bush's budget requests — with the exception of the veterans funding measure.
House GOP conservatives promise to supply the votes to uphold any Bush vetoes.
Bush has had uneven success so far in his dealings with the Democratic-controlled Congress on spending. Most recently, Democrats added $17 billion to an Iraq war funding bill, money not sought by Bush, despite his veto threats against "excess and extraneous" spending.
"We are spending $10 billion a month in Iraq," said House Majority leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md. "Given our continuing homeland security vulnerabilities, we can surely find $2 billion to keep the American people safer at home."
Since taking over Congress in January, Democrats have already awarded veterans and homeland security programs significant budget boosts, first when wrapping up last year's unfinished budget work and also last month when passing the Iraq war funding bill.
Those two bills combined to provide more than $5 billion for veterans.