By Jonathan Weisman and Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, December 8, 2007
House Democratic leaders could complete work as soon as Monday on a half-trillion-dollar spending package that will include billions of dollars for the war effort in Iraq without the timelines for the withdrawal of combat forces that President Bush has refused to accept, House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) said yesterday.
In a complicated deal over the war funds, Democrats will include about $11 billion more in domestic spending than Bush has requested, emergency drought relief for the Southeast and legislation to address the subprime mortgage crisis, Hoyer told a meeting of the Washington Post editorial board.
If the bargain were to become law, it would be the third time since Democrats took control of Congress that they would have failed to force Bush to change course in Iraq and continued to fund a war that they have repeatedly vowed to end. But it would also be the clearest instance yet of the president bowing to a Democratic demand for more money for domestic priorities, an increase that he had promised to reject.
"The way you pass appropriations bills is you get agreement among all the relevant players, among which the president with his veto pen is a very relevant player," Hoyer said. "Everybody knows he has no intention of signing anything without money for Iraq, unfettered, without constraints. I think that's ultimately going to be the result."
The Democrats plan to take a three-step approach to completing the deal. House leaders are considering an initial allotment of about $30 billion, ostensibly for the war in Afghanistan and some other military needs, which all sides in the deal recognize could be shifted to fund the Iraq war.
Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) then would allow Republicans to increase that amount to avert a filibuster of the spending bill in the Senate. The goal of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is $70 billion for the war, more than the $50 billion short-term funding that House Democrats initially proposed but far less than the $196 billion Bush has sought.
The Senate-passed bill would then go to the House for final approval.
McConnell was the first to suggest the outlines of the deal, which would allow Congress to pass the 11 remaining appropriations bills for fiscal 2008. Hoyer said Democrats are ready to accept that bargain.
But the deal has a long way to go before it can be enacted. Reid and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) vowed last month to oppose any additional money for the Iraq war that does not come with a timeline for the withdrawal of U.S. troops. In talks this week with White House Chief of Staff Joshua B. Bolten and White House budget chief Jim Nussle, Reid signaled that he could accept the McConnell deal, according to Senate Democratic aides. But Pelosi is uncommitted, spokesman Nadeam Elshami said.
Republican leaders are badly divided on the plan. At a White House meeting this week, McConnell presented the proposal to Bush, but House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and House Minority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) urged the president to reject it.
Even as Bush's approval ratings have slid to historic lows, House GOP leaders have stood by him, twisting the arms of rank-and-file Republicans to uphold his vetoes of popular legislation, such as an expansion of the State Children's Health Insurance Program and funding increases for health care and education.
White House acquiescence now to increased domestic spending would be viewed as a betrayal by House Republicans who are trying to reestablish their credentials as small-government conservatives.
"I am adamantly opposed to it," Boehner said Thursday. "I came here to hold the line on spending, not to raise it."
Blunt said yesterday that Democrats will give in on war funding, with or without additional money for domestic programs. "There's no reason to make a bad bargain," he said. "The president holds all the cards."
McConnell has been more circumspect in his public statements, predicting that an omnibus spending bill will pass only if Bush gets Iraq war funding with no timeline strings attached to it.
"We made our bright lines very clear," said Don Stewart, McConnell's spokesman.
Behind closed doors, McConnell has expressed confidence in the Republican negotiating position, telling his GOP colleagues Thursday that, by holding firm, they had moved from a Democratic offer of no money for the war to at least $30 billion, according to a Republican in the meeting.
"We're just going to sit right here," McConnell told Senate Republicans of the negotiating strategy, according to the Republican, who made anonymity a condition for speaking freely about an internal meeting.
Senate Republican leadership aides said an additional $11 billion in domestic spending, plus drought relief, might be a hard sell in the Senate. One GOP aide said that the Democrats made a bargaining mistake last month when Reid signaled that the Democrats were willing to halve their initial request of $22 billion in additional domestic spending, setting "boundaries" for the current debate in which $11 billion serves as the new ceiling.
Regardless of the spending increases for veterans, health care, education and other domestic priorities, however, several House Democrats have said they will vote against any bill that includes war funding shorn of policy prescriptions. Pelosi will have to attract considerable Republican support to get the deal through.
Democratic leadership aides expressed confidence that Boehner and Blunt will not be able to keep enough Republicans away from a bill that funds the war, popular domestic programs and their own pet projects, known as earmarks. With a long holiday break beckoning, few lawmakers will be in the mood for a protracted standoff.
Ultimately, it will be up to Bush to decide whether to accept the deal. Sean Kevelighan, a spokesman for the White House's Office of Management and Budget, would not say how the president will proceed.
"Until we have seen a piece of legislation, it's really hard to speculate, because not only had [the Democrats'] strategy been shifting constantly, but we can't know whether or not the House and the Senate are even talking to each other," he said.
White House spokesman Tony Fratto said the president's position has not changed. He wants the war funds without strings, and he wants Congress to toe his line on spending.
Hoyer struck a pragmatic tone, pushing for Congress to adjourn for the year by the end of next week. He suggested that Democrats need to divorce their goal of ending the war from the battle over funding.
"We have to get to a point where the American public more clearly perceives our policy position and is not confused by whether or not the Democrats intend to support the troops that we've sent to Iraq. I don't think there's an option on that," Hoyer said.