By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 23, 2008
The Senate yesterday approved $165 billion to fund the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan well into the next presidency, but in a break with President Bush and the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, Sen. John McCain, it also approved billions of dollars in domestic spending that includes a generous expansion of veterans' education benefits.
The war funding measure, which passed 70 to 26, will be twinned with the domestic spending package and sent to the House for final approval after Congress's Memorial Day recess. Senators stripped the package of all language that mandated troop withdrawals and sought to govern the conduct of the Iraq war, which had been in a previous version approved by the House.
But the separate domestic spending package served notice to the White House that in an election year, lawmakers from both parties will demand coupling Iraq war funds with priorities at home. In total, the bill would cost more than $250 billion over 10 years, including $51 billion for the veterans' education benefits alone.
"I have spent many days in the United States Senate, and I don't know of any days I will cherish more than this one," said retiring Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.), one of the original co-sponsors of the new G.I. Bill.
The 75 to 22 vote on the domestic measure surprised even its advocates and showed clearly the impact of the looming November election on Republican unity. Senate Republicans who face reelection abandoned Bush first, followed by other Republicans. Twenty-five Senate Republicans, more than half the total, joined 48 Democrats and two independents to ensure the bill's passage.
It was the day's second clear rebuke of Bush, who has promised to veto any measure that adds domestic spending to his $108 billion request to fund the war. Large numbers of Republican senators also joined Democrats yesterday in overriding Bush's veto of the $307 billion farm bill.
The White House opposed the expanded G.I. Bill, concerned that the price tag is too high and that the generous benefits could entice service members to leave the overburdened military rather than reenlist. Republicans and Democrats urged Bush to back off from his veto threat.
"I hope the president observes what he sees here and gives us a pat on the back instead of a veto with his pen," said Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) one of five military veterans in the Senate -- three Democrats, two Republicans -- who gathered to hail the bill's passage.
The White House showed no sign of that. "There's a long way to go in this process, and fortunately it takes two houses of Congress to send a bill to the president," said White House spokeswoman Dana Perino. "Our position hasn't changed: This is the wrong way to consider domestic spending, and Congress should not go down this path."
The Senate measure extends unemployment benefits for 13 weeks, funds levee construction around New Orleans, and guarantees that veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will receive education benefits equal to the tuition at the most expensive state universities.
It provides additional funds for the Food and Drug Administration, the 2010 census, federal prisons, local law enforcement agencies, heating assistance for the poor and many other domestic priorities. It also blocks the administration from implementing regulations that would limit access to the State Children's Health Insurance Program.
Although parts of the amendment have always enjoyed bipartisan support, the measure has taken on the weight of the presidential campaign in recent weeks. McCain (Ariz.) had opposed the domestic spending and advocated a slimmed-down version of the G.I. Bill, adopting the administration's argument that the original version -- by Sens. James Webb (D-Va.) and Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) -- would deplete the military.
In so doing, McCain went against virtually every veterans organization, from the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion to the more partisan VoteVets.org, which has aired blistering advertisements against him.
McCain did not interrupt his campaign schedule to vote yesterday, a decision that drew criticism. His Democratic rivals, Sens. Barack Obama (Ill.) and Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.), did vote.
"I respect Senator John McCain's service to our country," Obama said. "But I can't understand why he would line up behind the president in opposition to this G.I. Bill. I can't believe why he believes it is too generous to our veterans."
McCain blasted back, questioning Obama's knowledge of veterans issues and his commitment to national security.
"I take a backseat to no one in my affection, respect and devotion to veterans. And I will not accept from Senator Obama, who did not feel it was his responsibility to serve our country in uniform, any lectures on my regard for those who did," he said in a lengthy statement.
The fate of the Senate package is unclear. The legislation would probably gain majority support in the House if Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) put it to a vote. But it has serious problems in her fractious Democratic caucus.
Antiwar liberals oppose any funds for the war, especially if they are not accompanied by binding language to bring combat forces home. The original House version of the bill included no war funds, because Republicans refused to vote for the money, saying they had been left out of negotiations.
Conservative "blue dog" Democrats insist that a new entitlement, such as the G.I. Bill, be fully funded with spending cuts or tax increases. The House-passed version funded the veterans' benefits with a 0.5 percent tax increase on incomes exceeding $500,000 for individuals and $1 million for couples.
"There's a long way to go in this process, and now that Congress' cynical strategy has failed, it is time for the Congress to send a bill to the President that he can sign," White House budget director Jim Nussle said in a statement.
But House Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel (Ill.) predicted that early next month, Congress will send Bush a war funding bill with Webb's veterans' education package as its centerpiece.
"Count on it," Emanuel said.