House Democrats voted unanimously last year for the appropriations bill to fund the Department of Veterans Affairs and related programs; this year, there could be considerable defections.
Reps. Xavier Becerra of California and Joseph Crowley of New York, the chairman and vice chairman of the House Democratic Caucus respectively, told reporters Wednesday morning they would not be complicit in passing the fiscal 2016 Military Construction and Veterans Affairs appropriations bill this week — a bill they contend would ultimately decimate veterans services.
Further, they said, they were prepared to oppose the bill at the direction of Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald, who addressed the House Democratic Caucus at its weekly closed-door meeting.
"He sent a very strong message: 'Please don't let this funding bill become law,'" Becerra said, adding that McDonald, a Republican, told the caucus 70,000 veterans would lose services if the pending bill became law.
"Virtually, if not every, veteran services organization opposes the cuts in the MilCon-VA bill," added Crowley, who characterized the bill's handling of the Veterans Affairs department as "privatizing" the agency, something he called "a farce."
House Democrats' opposition to the MilCon-VA bill would signal the seriousness of their intentions to push congressional Republicans to adopt a new fiscal framework that raises sequester-level spending caps, something similar to the budget deal negotiated at the end of 2013 between then-House Budget Committee Chairman Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., then his counterpart in the Senate.
Veterans Affairs is typically the least controversial spending bill, with lawmakers in both parties usually reluctant to cast a vote that could be portrayed as anti-veteran. Obama declined to issue a veto threat on the MilCon-VA proposal on the House floor last year, though the White House Statement of Administrative Policy took issue with numerous provisions.
Obama's stated intention to veto this time around, along with McDonald's displeasure, gives House Democrats ammunition to oppose and cover to vote "no," even though they aren't likely to have the manpower to sink the measure entirely. There are enough Democrats who will still feel compelled to vote "yes."
The dispute over the Veterans Affairs bill is part of an ongoing challenge by Democrats to push Republicans to raise the sequester-level spending caps, but Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., reiterated Tuesday that removing the caps was a nonstarter for Republicans as long as Obama demands a raise in revenue in return.
Becerra and Crowley suggested opposition to the MilCon-VA appropriations bill could be just the start of House Democrats standing together to stonewall passage of the remaining 11 annual appropriations bills — a strategy that could take some shine off Republican boasts about bringing appropriations measures to the floor the earliest in nearly 40 years.
There are other bills in the pipeline that will be harder sells to GOP fiscal hawks likely to blanch at spending levels or policy riders they don't like — starting with the Energy and Water Development appropriations bill set to follow consideration of MilCon-VA. Those are the bills where the Republican leadership, facing defection in their own ranks, could need Democrats' support — and they may not have it.
"It's not the first," Becerra warned. "It's not the last."
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