WASHINGTON – House Republicans who have spent months demanding spending cuts ended up blanching Wednesday at their first opportunity to actually make them, instead joining Democrats in treating a bill to pay for veterans programs in 2011 as politically sacrosanct in an election year.

The veterans measure is the first of a dozen spending bills for the upcoming 2011 budget year to come up for a vote. Democrats, meanwhile, were doing some ducking and weaving of their own to avoid time-consuming floor debates and politically difficult votes.

It’s of little surprise that Democrats picked the Veterans Affairs bill, which passed by 411-6, as the first in the appropriations pile to bring to a vote. Only a handful of others are likely to get as far before the November election, even though all 12 are supposed to pass both the House and Senate and be signed by the president before Oct. 1. Last year at this time, the House had passed all 12 bills.

House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, offered the only amendments to cut the veterans bill, but withdrew them as soon as Democrats started making political hay out of them.

Boehner wanted to cut the Veterans Affairs Department’s rapidly growing policy office as well as its congressional lobbying operation and skim $45 million from the VA’s $3.3 billion request for computer systems, which the agency itself admits was too high.

Still, Democrats howled.

“I couldn’t believe it. You’re coming into an election and you’re taking money away from veterans,” said Veterans Committee Chairman Bob Filner, D-Calif. “I guess that’s their definition of supporting the troops.”

Veterans programs are hardly hurting. The VA’s so-called discretionary budget — the portion adopted by Congress each year — has risen 70 percent over the last five years and would receive a 7 percent boost for next year. Lawmakers say such increases are required by the large number of wounded veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan.

This year’s $77 billion veterans bill includes money to reduce a backlog in processing health claims, additional funding for community health centers and big increases to treat conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and traumatic brain injury.