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Senate approves $145B spending bill to fund energy, veterans

By MATTHEW DALY, Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Senate on Monday approved a $145 billion spending bill to fund the Energy Department and veterans’ programs for the next budget year.

The 86-5 vote in favor of the bill sends it back to the House, which approved a similar bill this month. Lawmakers hope to send a unified bill to President Donald Trump as the first of what they hope will be a series of spending bills signed into law before the new budget year begins Oct. 1.

Individual spending measures have routinely been delayed or ignored in recent years in favor of giant spending packages — often months overdue — that fund the entire government.
GOP leaders are anxious to avoid another massive spending bill as the midterm elections approach. Trump has pledged he won’t sign another catchall measure like the $1.3 trillion bill he signed in March.

The three-bill bundle approved Monday includes a $5.1 billion increase for the Department of Veterans Affairs, including $1.1 billion to pay for a law Trump signed in June to give veterans more freedom to see doctors outside the troubled VA system.

The bill includes $43.8 billion for energy and water programs, including programs to ensure nuclear stockpile readiness and spur innovation in energy research. The bill also funds flood-control projects and addresses regional ports and waterways.

Lawmakers focused less on those details than on the vote itself, calling early approval of a spending bill the beginning of a return to “regular order” that has eluded Congress for years.

Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., said senators were “doing what the Senate is supposed to do” — propose bills, debate them and then vote them up or down. Too often, he said, being a senator is “like joining the Grand Ole Opry and not being allowed to sing.”

Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said he hoped the bill’s passage signals Senate approval of all 12 spending bills by the end of September.

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“It is my hope that we will not be led astray down the path of delay and partisanship that results in yet another omnibus,” Shelby said, using a congressional term for the catch-all spending bill. “That is no way to fund the government.”

Shelby praised the panel’s vice chairman, Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, for helping him keep partisan policy riders out of the legislation. Such riders are considered “poison pills” because they imperil final passage of the bill. Lawmakers banished one such rider last week, an effort by Republican Sen. Mike Lee of Utah that would have scrapped the Obama administration’s Clean Water Rule.

Lee and other Republicans consider the rule intrusive and say it unfairly expands authority of the Environmental Protection Agency. Twenty Republican senators — including many who agree with Lee on the substance of the water rule — voted with Democrats to shelve it.

The Lee amendment is “precisely the type of poison pill policy rider we have worked so hard to avoid” and would have jeopardized passage of the overall bill, Leahy said. He thanked Republicans who “recognized this reality as well” and joined with Democrats to block the amendment.

“By focusing on funding matters, and avoiding controversial policy riders, we have ended the Senate debate with a bipartisan product that both Democrats and Republicans can support,” Leahy said.

The spending bill also contains $3.8 billion to fund the annual operations of Congress. It includes a provision to again deny lawmakers the annual cost-of-living pay raise that they are supposed to receive. Salaries for members of Congress have been frozen at $174,000 per year for a decade.

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