Senate panel keeps domestic budgets frozen for now

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WASHINGTON (AP) — Ignoring veto threats, Republicans on a key Senate panel Wednesday approved an overall freeze on the annual operating budgets for domestic agencies while padding overseas military accounts to raise Pentagon budget limits by $36 billion.

The proposal by Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Thad Cochran allocates slightly more money to domestic agencies and foreign aid accounts than a competing plan by House Republicans, but it wasn't nearly enough for panel Democrats. They uniformly opposed it.

Nonetheless, Democrats voted 26-4 to advance the first of 12 annual spending bills, a $35 billion measure funding energy programs and Army Corps of Engineers water projects. Most Democrats, however, voted against a second $78 billion bill funding the Department of Veterans Affairs, saying the amount isn't enough. That measure advanced by a 21-9 vote.

The developments pave the way for possible floor debates this summer, though it's unclear how many of the spending bills will pass over Democratic opposition. The panel's top Democrat, Sen. Barbara Mikulski of Maryland, suggested her party would help advance at least some of the bills.

"We don't want to shut the process down," Mikulski said. "We want the process to move forward."

Senators in both parties said they hope for a budget pact later this year that would free up funding for domestic programs, which are being hit by automatic cuts after a two-year respite under a budget pact negotiated in 2013 by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., the former chairmen of the House and Senate Budget committees.

That pact replaced some immediate and automatic budget cuts known as sequestration with alternative longer-term cuts and fees elsewhere in the federal budget, and Murray said a similar deal is needed to win Obama's signature on spending bills. Obama vows to veto the bills at sequestration levels and won't allow Republicans to boost defense without comparable relief for domestic programs.

"Now we have a choice. We can fix this problem now," Murray said. "Or we can choose to ignore the problem we know exists, paper it over with a partisan gimmick fix, and set us up for another budget fight and potential crisis in the fall."

A senior Republican acknowledged the need for additional money to get the measures enacted but urged the process go forward.

"We are going to have a spending discussion," said Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., chief author of the energy and water projects measure. "I strongly recommend we have it later ... or we'll shut everything down."

The VA funding measure ordinarily enjoys sweeping support, but most committee Democrat opposed it on Wednesday because its $69 billion for the department falls almost $1 billion short of Obama's request. But that still provides the VA with an almost 8 percent increase.

"The bill increases funding for veterans in the areas where they need it the most — health care, benefit claims processing, medical research and technology upgrades," said Cochran, R-Miss.

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