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House to boost veterans' programs, cut food aid

In an otherwise lean budget year, the House on Tuesday overwhelmingly voted to boost funding to take care of the medical needs of the nation's veterans.

After a 411-5 vote for a $72.5 billion measure funding veterans' programs and military construction projects, the GOP-dominated chamber immediately resumed its budget-slashing ways and began a politically charged debate on a food and farm bill. The measure cuts aid for low-income pregnant women and their children and slashes a key overseas food aid program by about one-third below this year's funding.

At the same time, the Appropriations Committee is set to approve a $649 billion measure that slightly increases the Pentagon's operating budget while cutting costs for overseas military operations by $39 billion, reflecting a drawing down of troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Taken together, the developments illustrate the difficulties confronting Republicans as they seek to cut agency budgets by $30 billion below levels set in an agreement between Republicans and the Obama administration in April.

Once money is added for programs like defense, veterans and homeland security, spending on domestic programs like food aid for the poor, education, health care and housing subsidies falls to levels that lawmakers are going to find difficult to support. After a $17 billion increase for the Pentagon is factored in, domestic agencies and foreign aid programs would absorb cuts of $47 billion that would translate into cuts averaging about 10 percent.

The White House weighed in Monday with a policy statement blasting the agriculture bill but not explicitly threatening a veto.

A program that provides healthy foods like milk, eggs and infant formula to about 9 million poor mothers and pregnant women and their children is one such program. Lawmakers for years have awarded it enough money so that all eligible people can get food, comparable to automatic benefit programs like food stamps and unemployment insurance.

But the budget guillotine is forcing cuts to previously protected programs like the food program for women, infants and children. The WIC program would absorb an $868 million cut of 13 percent from current spending — and a $1.3 billion cut below the administration's request. That has Democrats and advocates for the poor howling that it could mean that more than 200,000 people would be turned away from the program if food prices rise as expected.

"Tightening our belts is one thing. But people who depend on supplemental food programs, like WIC, or food stamps, or school lunches, have belts that are already cinched," said Rep. Sam Farr, D-Calif.

At the same time, the increasing demands of caring for veterans from Afghanistan and Iraq are forcing budget increases of about 4 percent for veterans' health care, which come on top of a recent wave of significantly higher-than-inflation increases.

The veterans funding measure is expected to pass easily. But a roiling debate on the agriculture spending bill is assured. The bill also cuts a program that delivers food to low-income senior citizens 23 percent below current levels.

The popular Food for Peace program, which uses taxpayer dollars to buy U.S. commodities and ships them to deprived areas in Africa and elsewhere across the globe, would absorb a $457 million cut of almost one-third. The White House says that would translate into 1.1 million fewer people getting U.S. food aid.

The administration also opposes the measure's cuts for enforcing last year's big overhaul of derivatives markets overseen by the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, as well as cuts to food safety programs and a childhood obesity initiative backed by first lady Michele Obama.

The agriculture measure is the third of 12 annual spending bills funding the day-to-day operations of the government for the budget year beginning Oct. 1. Freewheeling debates are expected on the remaining measures.

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