The House approved a $460 billion spending package on March 6, 2024.

The House approved a $460 billion spending package on March 6, 2024. (Carlos Bongioanni/Stars and Stripes)

WASHINGTON — The House approved a $460 billion spending package on Wednesday to fund the Department of Veterans Affairs and five other federal agencies through the fall, signing off on a long overdue budget for veteran health programs and military construction.

Lawmakers voted 339-85 in favor of six spending bills after months of drawn-out negotiations between the Republican-led House and Democrat-led Senate that nearly shut down the government multiple times since the start of fiscal 2024 on Oct. 1.

The series of bills needs to pass the Senate by Friday to avoid a partial government shutdown.

The VA legislation contains almost none of the divisive policy mandates House Republicans had approved last year in their version of the bill, including a proposed ban on the VA offering abortions in cases of rape or incest or when the life of the mother is at risk.

Other policies removed during bipartisan negotiations would have prohibited gender-affirming care for transgender veterans and the display of pride flags at VA facilities.

“This legislation does not have everything either side may have wanted but I am pleased that many of the extreme cuts and policies proposed by House Republicans were excluded,” said Rep. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut, the top Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee. “House Democrats rejected outright their archaic restrictions on women’s reproductive health care.”

Republicans were able to achieve one notable victory, however.

A provision in the VA bill will bar the department from automatically reporting veterans who are found incapable of handling their own finances to a federal gun background check system that could block firearm ownership.

The policy was instituted by the VA to help prevent veteran suicides, most of which involve a gun. The VA would need a court order to report a veteran under language inserted by Republicans but also championed by some Democrats.

“No veteran should lose their constitutional right to bear arms simply because they need help managing their finances, and if they are a danger to themselves or others, a judge should make that decision — not a VA bureaucrat,” said Rep. Mike Bost, R-Ill., chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee.

Rep. Mark Takano of California, the committee’s top Democrat, refused to support the spending bill solely because of the gun ownership provision. He said veterans who are deemed incapable of managing their income typically have serious mental health conditions such as schizophrenia and dementia and should not be able to buy a firearm.

“I have fought to prevent the scourge of veteran suicide so why on earth would this Congress cede one more important safeguard against a veteran’s death?” he said Wednesday in a floor speech. “I personally cannot.”

Funding for various VA programs, including suicide prevention, makes up a significant portion of the spending package.

Lawmakers touted increased investments in mental health and substance abuse programs for veterans, health care specifically for women veterans, and services for homeless veterans. More than 550,000 veterans were diagnosed with a substance abuse disorder in 2022 and the number of homeless veterans exceeded 35,000 during a homelessness survey in January.

“We held strong on our commitment to veterans,” said Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla.

The bill also boosts spending on construction projects in the military, funding the design and construction of more than a dozen barracks and the renovation and construction of National Guard and Reserve facilities.

Congress still needs to approve fiscal 2024 appropriations for the Defense Department and five other agencies before their funding expires on March 22. The delay in the funding process means lawmakers will still be working on the 2024 budget as the White House releases its 2025 budget request on Monday.

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Svetlana Shkolnikova covers Congress for Stars and Stripes. She previously worked with the House Foreign Affairs Committee as an American Political Science Association Congressional Fellow and spent four years as a general assignment reporter for The Record newspaper in New Jersey and the USA Today Network. A native of Belarus, she has also reported from Moscow, Russia.

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