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Senate panel kicks off work on spending bills

Senate panel kicks off work on spending bills

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WASHINGTON (AP) — A key Senate panel kicked off action on its long-delayed agenda of 12 annual spending bills on Thursday with a bipartisan measure boosting spending on veterans programs by 5 percent.

The unanimous Senate Appropriations Committee vote on a popular $89 billion measure for the Department of Veterans Affairs and military base construction was a relative bright spot on Capitol Hill. Lawmakers were battling over how much to beef up the Pentagon and whether to add to domestic programs.

Those differences were amply on display in the counterpart House Appropriations panel. It spent the day arguing over cuts to foreign aid and Pell Grants.

Another contentious issue: money to speed the seizure, through eminent domain, of private land in Texas to build President Donald Trump's wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. Democrats opposed the money, contained in a Justice Department and NASA funding bill, but were rebuffed along party lines in their effort to cut it.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., warned that moves by House Republicans to make a down payment on the Mexico wall and cut domestic programs is a "dangerous, irresponsible path" that "can only lead to a government shutdown."

"They're steering us towards a train wreck," Schumer said.

At issue were the 12 annual spending bills covering the annual operating budgets for federal agencies for the budget year starting in October. Trump has pushed, half-heartedly it seems, deep cuts in domestic programs and foreign aid, while pressing for sharp increases for defense.

House Republicans reject the bulk of Trump's cuts to nondefense programs but add even more money for the Pentagon. That puts the GOP-controlled House and Senate at odds, at least for now. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has said he wants to cut a deal with Schumer that would lift the impasse, though he's been preoccupied with health care.

"My office and McConnell's office are communicating well," Schumer told reporters. "The problem is between the Senate and the House."

The Senate panel is holding off on the more controversial bills and appears likely to avoid fighting over the defense budget in hopes of a bipartisan agreement.

But the good-natured battling in the House Appropriations Committee has consumed much of the week. One House panel approved a $47 billion foreign aid measure.

Trump wanted to cut almost $17 billion from foreign aid. House Republicans countered with a reduction of $10 billion.

The House foreign aid cuts spared Israel and Egypt and exempted the budget for protecting U.S. embassies overseas. But it slashed U.S. payments to the United Nations by $600 million and cut funding for multilateral organizations focused on topics such as climate change and debt relief by more than 60 percent. Direct U.S. economic aid to poor and unstable nations absorbed a $4.2 billion cut to $22.7 billion.

Another House Appropriations panel approved a $156 billion measure funding labor, health and education programs. Democrats opposed cuts from leftover Pell grant funding, as well as cuts to family planning programs and money to administer the Medicare program. They also opposed policy "riders" that would curb fetal tissue research and "defund" Planned Parenthood.

"This bill fails to meet our country's needs, and breaks our promises to women, seniors, students and our workforce," said Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn.

Republicans touted gains in the measure for medical research at the National Institutes of Health, special education and preservation of heating subsidies for the poor.

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