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House GOP Postpones Votes on VA Spending Bill

South Carolina Republican Mulvaney teamed Wednesday with Maryland Democrat Van Hollen to derail, for now, the veterans spending bill. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

House Republicans have been boasting about their early start to appropriations season, but consideration of the very first spending bill — considered the least controversial of all 12 annual measures — hit a snag Wednesday night.  

GOP leaders had intended to hold evening votes on a slew of amendments and on final passage of the fiscal 2016 Military Construction and Veterans Affairs appropriations bill, but ultimately opted to postpone that vote series at the very last minute. Some sources suggested it was a matter of fatigue, with House lawmakers still on tap to start slogging through amendment debate on the second appropriations bill in the queue, one to fund energy and water-related programs. Others pointed to the late-night markup of the National Defense Authorization Act that was still going on inside the House Armed Services Committee, with members of that panel possibly missing the chance to weigh in on important provisions.  

But several senior House aides, including those who work in leadership offices, confirmed to CQ Roll Call that part of the reason for stalling MilCon-VA votes had to do with GOP leaders' anxiety that members on both sides of the aisle were prepared to adopt an amendment that would strip from the underlying bill the ability to spend money from the Overseas Contingency Operations account.  

House Republican leaders included that $532 million account to make the spending bill, which is limited due to sequester-level spending caps, more attractive to defense hawks who insist the Pentagon needs more cash to fight terror. But Budget ranking member Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., and Rep. Mick Mulvaney, R-S.C., teamed up on three related amendments to eliminate the ability to use the money.  

"It spends $532 million in the OCO budget for matters that the Department of Defense admits are not war-related," said Mulvaney, a two-term budget hawk who said last month he'd rather raise taxes than add to the deficit.  

"These are matters that the Department of Defense included in its original base defense budget request, but which there isn't enough money under the ... caps," he said during House floor debate earlier Wednesday. "The appropriators have taken those requests, which are admittedly not war-related, and buried it in this appropriations bill using the OCO money."  

While Mulvaney and others in his camp are concerned the GOP's bill goes too far in undermining spending caps, Van Hollen and company feel the bill doesn't go far enough.  

"There is clearly bipartisan opposition to using the Overseas Contingency Operations budget as a slush fund for non-war related projects," Van Hollen said in a statement Wednesday night. "We need to get back to the table to have an honest debate about our budget and renegotiate the funding caps for both defense and nondefense. Only then will we be able to provide the necessary resources for our national security needs."  

The amendments are designed to attract conservatives who view the OCO money as wasteful and a gimmick, and Democrats who want to stymie Republicans' efforts to move spending bills at sequester levels. Democrats were already earlier in the day preparing in large numbers to vote against the bill just based on the topline number alone, emboldened by President Barack Obama's veto threat and unanimous opposition from major veterans' service organizations.  

OCO was subject to scrutiny last month when House Budget negotiators opted to use the fund to boost defense spending and had to make that allocation even higher after defense hawks threatened to withhold votes.  

The House-Senate conference report on the fiscal 2016 non-binding budget blueprint will come to the House floor for a vote on Thursday, a House GOP leadership aide confirmed Wednesday night. That's a change from the original plan to consider the report on Friday — which also means that the MilCon-VA final passage vote could be further postponed.  

Related: House Democrats Threaten to Sink House GOP Spending Bills The 114th: CQ Roll Call's Guide to the New Congress Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call in your inbox or on your iPhone.