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Veterans programs get boost from House panels
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    WASHINGTON — Two House panels on Thursday approved remarkably generous spending bills for the upcoming budget year, awarding veterans programs with record increases and restoring proposed cuts to local law enforcement subsidies.
    Veterans programs would receive a 12 percent increase under a bill unanimously approved by a House Appropriations subcommittee, including funding to reduce enrollment backlogs, improve mental health care and fix up aging facilities. It adds $1.1 billion above President Bush’s budget to expand six Veterans Administration hospitals, as well as 145 less-ambitious construction projects.
    A second measure, funding the Commerce and Justice departments, NASA and science and ‘‘competitiveness’’ programs, would provide increases averaging almost 9 percent over current funding.
    Even so, Democrats rejected a last-minute $540 million administration request to fix major problems with the 2010 Census.
    The two bills face an uncertain future as election-year politics are likely to grind Congress’ annual appropriations process to a halt. Bush is likely to threaten vetoes of both bills as too costly, and Democrats want to avoid such a confrontation.
    While lawmakers in both parties supported the bills, Republicans grumbled that that Democrats were showering virtually every program with increases.
    ‘‘This legislation does nothing to rein in federal spending,’’ said Rep. Jerry Lewis, R-Calif. ‘‘Tough budgetary choices must be made. Trying to please everyone by fully funding every program is something we simply cannot afford to do.’’
    Subcommittee Chairman Alan Mollohan, D-W.Va., acknowledged that it looked like his panel was ‘‘swimming in cash’’ with a $5 billion increase over current spending, but he said much of the increase was due to rejecting cuts to state and local law enforcement grants.
    Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, R-N.J., said the big increases for domestic programs allowed lawmakers to ‘‘avoid making tough but necessary decisions to maintain fiscal discipline.’’
    Under congressional Democrats’ recently adopted budget blueprint, non-defense programs funded by Congress each year would receive $24 billion more than current levels.
    Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey, D-Wis., is also shifting billions of dollars billion from Bush’s record-setting Pentagon budget to domestic programs such as education and health research.
    The record $8.8 billion increase over current levels for veterans spending comes on top of major increases in recent years. Congress has increasingly followed the ambitious budget recommendations of a group of veterans service organizations such as Disabled American Veterans.

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