Senate Passes Veterans, Transportation, Zika Spending Plan

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The U.S. Capitol is shown Dec. 23, 2009, in Washington.

Photographer: Win McNamee/Getty Images
  • Marijuana, fertility, trucking provisions included in bill
  • Bill includes Guantanamo restrictions, faces veto threat

The U.S. Senate passed its spending bill for transportation, veterans and combating the Zika virus Thursday, continuing a rare period of appropriations productivity.

Included in the bill passed 89-8 is a provision allowing Department of Veterans Affairs doctors to recommend medical marijuana to patients in states that have legalized it. The House backed the same provision earlier in the day.

Republican Senator Steve Daines of Montana sponsored the provision and said the House vote was encouraging. "A veteran, whether they walk into a VA facility or a non-VA facility, should have the same options available to them," he said.

The package also would provide new coverage for fertility treatments for veterans.

"This is a chance for us to support our veterans and the dreams they fought for, to have a family," said Democratic Senator Patty Murray of Washington, regarding the fertility provision.

The Senate, which has also passed its energy and water spending bill, is ahead of the House on spending measures for the first time in recent memory, as Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky hopes to show off a Senate at work with his majority at stake in the November election. The bill passed by the Senate includes $190.1 billion in discretionary and mandatory funds for military construction and veterans, and $114.2 billion for transportation and housing programs.

The bill, H.R. 2577, includes $1.1 billion in emergency spending to combat the Zika virus, including money to help develop a vaccine. That’s short of the $1.9 billion the White House requested but nearly double the $622 million funding transfer passed by the House Wednesday night. The smaller House package faces a veto threat.

Democrats had sought to pass the Zika funding as a separate bill, but Republican Whip John Cornyn of Texas blocked those efforts Wednesday after Democrats refused to agree to Obamacare cuts in return.

Zika Approaches

Senator Roy Blunt of Missouri said discussions are under way on resolving the two chambers’ approaches on Zika, and he predicted it would take a few weeks to reach a deal.

Republicans are under pressure from senators in their own party, including Marco Rubio of Florida, who are pushing for passage as quickly as possible given the coming mosquito season and the potential for outbreaks.

Republican Senator Mike Lee of Utah sought unsuccessfully to block new housing regulations aimed at curbing segregation in housing. That included a vigorous debate between Lee and fellow Republican Susan Collins of Maine as well as a number of Democrats.

Lee argued that the regulation would create a national zoning authority -- a notion disputed by Collins, the chairwoman of the housing and transportation spending subcommittee.

Among other major provisions included in the package is a relaxation of hours-of-service rules for truck drivers -- backed by shippers such as FedEx Corp. and opposed by safety groups -- and a provision that would restrict the administration’s ability to construct an alternative facility to house Guantanamo Bay detainees. The administration has threatened to veto the measure if it includes what it considers to be ideological riders.

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