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House tries to get appropriations bills on track

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WASHINGTON (AP) — The House on Wednesday took the first step in a bipartisan drive to fix its broken process for handling the $1 trillion provided to federal agencies each year for their day-to-day operations.

A sweeping 416-1 vote passed a bipartisan $71 billion measure funding the Veterans Affairs Department and construction projects on military bases. The sole vote in opposition came from Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho.

On schedule Thursday is a vote to freeze Congress' own budget and deny lawmakers a $2,800 cost-of-living pay increase.

The veterans measure is the most widely backed of all the 12 annual spending bills setting the operating budgets for federal agencies and programs and is therefore a safe candidate to kick off the annual ritual in which Congress considers the bills.

The appropriations process failed spectacularly last year. In March, six months late, lawmakers passed an omnibus spending bill that left many federal agencies on autopilot and then watched as automatic, across-the-board spending cuts slammed the Pentagon and domestic agencies alike.

Subsequent consideration of the round of fiscal 2014 bills collapsed as the House and Senate couldn't agree on a common spending limit to govern the appropriations process. The Senate didn't pass a single bill and House action cratered after spending bills with severe cuts didn't have the votes to pass. An unrelated fight over money to implement the Affordable Care Act sparked a partial government shutdown.

A subsequent take-it-or-leave-it vote in January on a massive, catchall appropriations bill was actually regarded as progress, but now those atop the House and Senate Appropriations committees want to advance the bills the old-fashioned way with weeks and weeks of debate and amendment, late nights and official House-Senate conference meetings.

Rep. Harold Rogers, R-Ky., the House Appropriations Committee chairman, is taking a time-tested, conservative approach, scheduling noncontroversial bills like the VA measure first. The bill seeks to ease a backlog in registering veterans for VA health benefits and tries to pressure the VA to fix flaws in upgrades to its electronic health records system, which isn't fully interoperable with the Pentagon's.

During debate on Wednesday, the House passed an amendment to provide another $1 million to the VA's inspector general to conduct an investigation into allegations of a secret waiting list for VA medical care in Phoenix that could have contributed to the deaths of 40 veterans awaiting care. But VA Undersecretary for Health Robert A. Petzel told a Senate committee Wednesday that a preliminary review found no evidence to support the allegations.

Wednesday evening, the House voted mostly along party lines to uphold a government directive to prohibit VA health providers from completing forms involving medical marijuana.

Earlier Wednesday, as a House Appropriations panel unanimously approved a $51 billion measure funding the Commerce and Justice departments as well as NASA and other science programs, Rogers made his latest pitch for doing appropriations business the old-fashioned way.

"This return to regular order is critical ... It is an important step to restoring the confidence of the American people that the system is working," Rogers said. "Congress can and should reassert its obligation and prerogative to manage our country's purse strings."

In the Senate, the new chairwoman of the Appropriations Committee, Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., is a formidable figure who has won a promise of several weeks of floor time this summer to try to revive the process there.

"We want to pass these bills individually and then conference them, House and Senate, the old-fashioned way," Rogers said.

The $51 billion Commerce, Justice and science measure would award small budget increases to the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration, NASA and the National Science Foundation, using unspent funds from prior years and a credit from the Justice Department's Crime Victims Fund to scrape together the money for the increases.

Democrats supported the measure despite cuts to local police hiring grants, climate change research, and a program to restore fisheries habitat. They praised new funds for addressing a backlog in DNA testing of rape kits that can sit on evidence shelves for years.

It's not clear how long the smooth sailing will last. Bills that fund implementation of the new health care law or new rules stemming from the big 2010 overhaul of financial regulations may prove controversial to pass. And the measure financing the Environmental Protection Agency is a magnet for GOP amendments to block new EPA rules. If past is prologue, those measures may bog down and have to be rolled together into a one big spending bill that wouldn't advance until the postelection lame-duck session.

Still, the mood among members of the beleaguered House Appropriations Committee is cautiously optimistic.

"I hope that for a certain period here that we can get some adequate allocations and write our bills and give the institution and the country the benefit of carefully wrought appropriations bills on a reasonably cooperative basis," said Rep. David Price, D-N.C., a veteran of the Appropriations panel.

"That's what we're here for as appropriators," he added, "and so I hope we'll be able to do our job."

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