WASHINGTON – In more than five years in Congress, Republican Rep. John Fleming of Louisiana recalls voting only once for emergency spending that raised the federal deficit.
That was this week, on a bill to improve health care for veterans, and it helps explain the lineup of winners and losers in the hours before Congress began a five-week break from the Capitol.
Veterans, Israelis and governors and local officials who want their highway money – all groups with demonstrated political clout – were able to break through Congress' customary gridlock. On the other side of the ledger, a proposal to spend more money fighting forest fires in the West and raise the deficit in the process did not make the cut in the Senate or even reach the House floor.
The prospect is non-existent for legislation to cope with the border crisis involving an influx of young Central American immigrants crossing into the U.S. illegally from Mexico. Instead, that issue seems destined to turn up in hard-edged political ads in several political races this fall.
"It wasn't a perfect bill, no question about it," Fleming said of the veterans' health care measure in a brief interview just off the House floor. But without a way to change it, he said, "I had to weigh the benefits for the veterans."
Fleming wasn't the only deficit hawk to make that decision.
Rep. Steve King, an Iowa Republican, did, as well. "Forty dead veterans...that was enough for me," he said, referring to reports of numerous deaths of former service members while waiting for appointments at overwhelmed facilities operated by the Department of Veterans Affairs.
A third Republican, Rep. Tom Rooney of Florida, said he couldn't recall any other deficit-raising bill that has received his vote since he came to Congress in 2009. "It's all part and parcel of going to war," he said, adding that if Congress is willing to raise deficits to finance combat, it should be willing to do the same to care for the troops it sends to carry out the mission.
In that, Rooney sounded surprisingly like Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Vermont independent, one of the most liberal lawmakers in Congress and one not known as a deficit hawk.
"Planes and tanks and guns are a cost of war," Sanders said as he shepherded the bill through the Senate in his capacity as Veterans Affairs Committee chairman. "So is taking care of the men and women who use those weapons and fight our battles."
Negotiations followed a predictable path. Democrats wanted more money than Republicans, who sought cuts to other programs to protect the deficit. Voices were raised, then lowered and the deal was cut. The cost came down, but deficits are projected to rise by $10 billion.
The Club for Growth, influential with conservatives, opposed the legislation. It warned the bill artificially capped costs and said lawmakers were in fact creating a new benefit program "that sets taxpayers on a course to spend half a trillion dollars over the next decade."
The warnings were apparently less persuasive than a crisp command from William A. Thien of the Veterans of Foreign Wars: "Pass a bill or don't come back from recess." The vote was 420-5 in the House and 91-3 in the Senate.
The highway measure will avert slowing or shutting down construction projects in all 50 states. Unlike the veterans' bill, all of the road bill's costs are covered, mostly from fees and temporarily higher tax revenues.
More than $6 billion comes from more taxes that will be paid by companies that will be allowed to temporarily reduce contributions to their pension funds. Higher fees paid to the Customs Service will remain in effect through 2024 rather than 2023 as is now the case, to provide another $3.5 billion.
Aid to Israel trumped the deficit in both parties and both houses, although at a far smaller cost than the veterans' measure.
House Republicans originally wanted to wait until September to send more missile defense money to Israel, now in the fourth week of a war against Hamas in Gaza. Democrats and Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell had other ideas.
In this case, the trade-off with the deficit was explicit. Republican Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma blocked passage of the bill on Thursday evening because it didn't include offsetting cuts elsewhere in the budget.
"I want to fund Israel. I want to supply them. I also want to make sure our children have a future. It is not hard to find $225 million out of $4 trillion," he said, referring to the size of the United States' budget.
Republicans privately outlined accounts that could be trimmed to keep deficits steady, but Democrats rejected the overtures.
By Friday morning, the Oklahoman was no longer on the Senate floor stopping legislation his party leader had made a personal priority.