By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 20, 2007
House Democratic leaders are offering billions in federal funds for lawmakers' pet projects large and small to secure enough votes this week to pass an Iraq funding bill that would end the war next year.
So far, the projects -- which range from the reconstruction of New Orleans levees to the building of peanut storehouses in Georgia -- have had little impact on the tally. For a funding bill that establishes tough new readiness standards for deploying combat forces and sets an Aug. 31, 2008, deadline to bring the troops home, votes do not come cheap.
But at least a few Republicans and conservative Democrats who otherwise would vote "no" remain undecided, as they ponder whether they can leave on the table millions of dollars for constituents by opposing the $124 billion war funding bill due for a vote on Thursday.
"She hates the games the Democrats are playing," said Guy Short, chief of staff to Rep. Marilyn Musgrave (R-Colo.), a staunch conservative who remains undecided, thanks to billions of dollars in the bill for drought relief and agriculture assistance. "But Representative Musgrave was just down in southeastern Colorado, talking to ranchers and farmers, and they desperately need this assistance."
Democratic leaders say the domestic spending in the bill reflects the pent-up demand from lawmakers who last year could not win funding for programs that had bipartisan support such as disaster assistance.
But in a formal veto statement last night, the White House denounced what it called "excessive and extraneous non-emergency spending." With unusually caustic and combative language, the statement dismissed provisions of the bill as "unconscionable," and said it "would place freedom and democracy in Iraq at grave risk" and "embolden our enemies."
As the opposition heats up, the Democrats have had some successes in their furious search for support. Yesterday, MoveOn.org announced that with 85 percent of its members backing the bill, the liberal activist group will begin working for its passage. That could prove to be a major boost for Democratic leaders struggling to keep in line the most liberal wing of the party, which wants to cut off funds for the war by the end of this year.
A few Republicans are at least considering a vote for the bill, including Reps. Wayne T. Gilchrest and Roscoe G. Bartlett of Maryland. Some conservative Democrats who had been expected to vote no on Thursday are wavering.
To get them off the fence and on the bill, Democrats have a key weapon at their disposal: cold, hard cash. The bill contains billions for agriculture and drought relief, children's health care and Gulf Coast hurricane recovery.
For Rep. Sam Farr (D-Calif.), there is $25 million for spinach growers hurt by last year's E. coli scare. For three conservative Democrats in Georgia, there is $75 million for peanut storage. For lawmakers from the bone-dry West, there is $500 million for wildfire suppression. An additional $120 million is earmarked for shrimp and Atlantic menhaden fishermen.
So far, at least in public pronouncements, the $21 billion in funding beyond President Bush's request has earned Democrats nothing but scorn.
For more than a year, Rep. Charles Boustany Jr. (R) has tried unsuccessfully to secure federal funds to prevent salt water from intruding on rice fields in his lowland Louisiana district. So it came as a surprise last week when Boustany found $15 million in the House's huge war spending bill for his rice farmers. He hadn't even asked that the bill include it.
"It gives me no satisfaction to vote against measures that I have been working for since even before [Hurricane] Katrina, but I cannot in good conscience vote for a bill that does this to our troops," Boustany said yesterday, decrying what he called the "cheap politics" of using disaster aid to win votes on a measure this controversial.
House GOP leaders have accused Democratic leaders of flagrant vote-buying.
"The war supplemental legislation voted out of the Appropriations Committee last week was an exercise in arrogance that demonstrated the utter contempt the majority has for the American people and their hard-earned tax dollars," fumed Rep. John Shadegg (R-Ariz.). "We are at war with a ruthless global terrorist network, yet the appropriators allocated hundreds of millions in funds to gratuitous pork projects."
Even some Democrats say the issue of Iraq has become far too heated to be conducive to vote-buying.
"The profile and urgency of this Iraq vote really doesn't lend itself to these kinds of side deals," said Rep. Earl Pomeroy (D-N.D.), who has pushed drought relief for more than a year.
But the success of adding the spending measures will not really be known until the votes are tallied. Rep. Bobby Jindal (R-La.), who is running for his state's governorship, has conspicuously refused to say whether he can vote against $2.9 billion for Gulf Coast hurricane recovery, including $1.3 billion for New Orleans levee repairs.
Rep. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), usually a reliable vote for the Republican leadership, is undecided as he ponders how he can vote against drought relief he has worked for months to secure. The same goes for Musgrave, whose district has been devastated by drought.
Democrats who may well have turned solidly against the bill are still weighing their options. Last year, Rep. John Barrow (Ga.) circulated a petition trying to get Republican House leaders to schedule a vote on drought relief. This year, Barrow's advocacy has yielded $3.7 billion worth of agricultural disaster assistance in the war spending bill, which he bragged about last week in a statement to constituents. The conservative Democrat, who narrowly escaped defeat in November, is now undecided on the Iraq bill.
For the undecided, these days running up to the vote will be difficult. The vote has become a high-stakes showdown between a Democratic leadership that has staked considerable political capital on the bill and a Republican leadership demanding that its members stay united in opposition.
But votes against home-state interests will not go unnoticed. When Appropriations Committee member Rodney Alexander (R-La.) voted against the bill in committee last week, Democratic Whip James E. Clyburn (S.C.) shot off a statement to the New Orleans Times-Picayune declaring, "When [Gulf Coast] assistance is on the fast track, Rep. Alexander chose to stand with his party rather than with the people of his region."
North Dakota's Republican lieutenant governor, Jack Dalrymple, was in Washington last week, lobbying for agriculture disaster assistance. "What it's about is the impact on the economy of an entire region," he told the Associated Press. "When you come down to the human level, there is no question that there are farmers meeting with their bankers right now, and whether or not they can farm this year is dependent on whether this program is approved."