By Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 7, 2008
Setting up their last major battle over war policy with President Bush, House Democrats yesterday unveiled a plan to link their favored domestic spending projects and a troop-withdrawal timeline to additional funds for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan requested by the White House.
The $195 billion spending measure would pay for the wars well into next year while tacking on $11 billion to extend unemployment benefits and nearly $1 billion to offer expanded higher education benefits for war veterans. Democrats said they hope that the spending provisions, particularly the education measure, will prove politically difficult for Bush to veto in an election year.
"If he wants to make a federal case out of the fact that we feel the need to do something major to reward the troops, that's his prerogative. But I don't think the country will agree with him. And I certainly don't think the country would agree with any effort to deny the extension of unemployment benefits," said House Appropriations Chairman David R. Obey (D-Wis.).
The White House remained opposed to the additional spending, demanding a "clean" bill to fund the wars by the symbolically important date of Memorial Day.
"We feel strongly that the Iraq war supplemental should remain for national security needs. We understand that there could be debates on other issues, such as unemployment benefits and food stamps, other issues that are important to a lot of people. But those issues can be taken up separate from our national security needs," said Dana Perino, White House press secretary.
House Republicans also denounced the Democrats' plan.
"It is unacceptable and, indeed, unimaginable for Congress to continue to hold our troops hostage for political leverage. If House Democrats want to ramp up spending on other government programs, those items should be considered separately," said House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio).
The House's emergency supplemental funding measure is broken into three pieces, including $162.6 billion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, of which $66 billion is designed to cover war costs for several months after the next administration takes over. The second portion includes language mandating immediate troop withdrawals with a goal of having most all troops out by the end of 2009. The third part includes the domestic spending.
Democrats expect the bill to pass the House tomorrow, with the military funding amendment winning strong support from Republicans and the other amendments securing approval based largely on Democratic votes.
In the Senate, where the language calling for troop withdrawals stands no chance of surviving, the key showdown next week is likely to focus on the level of Republican support for expanding veterans' education benefits, a provision sponsored by Sen. James Webb (D-Va.).
Some Senate Republicans already have signaled support for Webb's measure and endorsed the unusual route of authorizing a new program in an appropriation bill.
"If you've got to get the job done, sometimes you have to use an unusual tactic," said Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.), who is a co-sponsor of Webb's bill.
Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.), chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, said the administration owes returning service members because it went to war "with too few of them, too little equipment, no policy and no benefit when they came home," adding: "In our view, it rights a wrong."
The Webb bill covers the cost of the most expensive in-state college for soldiers returning from Iraq or Afghanistan, offering a year's tuition for each year served in the war zone.
Obey estimated that the initial cost of the measure would be $720 million over two years. "This turkey of a war is costing us a hell of a lot more than that," he said.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, has joined a pair of his supporters, Sens. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) and Richard Burr (R-N.C.), in offering a slimmed-down version of Webb's provision.
Republicans predicted that almost every GOP senator would support funding for the wars and the additional veterans' benefits in some fashion. They left open the option of voting to support a smaller benefit that would not be attached to the war funding.
"Whether they'll go together, we'll have to wait and see," said Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), a member of the GOP leadership team.
Obey rejected the notion that Democrats had loaded up the Iraq supplemental, which many in Congress view as the last major piece of legislation that could pass this year, with unrelated spending. He said the bill contains no special home-state projects, known as earmarks, adding that he rejected 110 proposals to add items to the measure.
Democrats said they hope the Senate will be able to pass its version of the bill next week, with the war and domestic spending included and the troop-withdrawal language stripped out.
Under that timeline, the House would pass the same bill and send it to the White House by Memorial Day, drawing a possible veto over the domestic spending.