By Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 20, 2008
In a pair of bipartisan votes, the House yesterday approved $162 billion to continue the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan well into 2009 and a separate measure that would allow veterans returning from those battlefields to receive increased education benefits.
The domestic spending measure, approved 416 to 12, also includes a 13-week extension of unemployment insurance for laid-off workers who have used all 26 weeks of their current benefits, and $2.65 billion for Midwest flood relief.
"It became clear this is what we had to do," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said during debate over the bill. "I will enthusiastically vote for the domestic piece of this."
The emergency spending bill -- which authorizes $95.5 billion for the unemployment and veterans benefits and a variety of other programs -- heads to the Senate, where leaders say it could be approved next week.
After weeks of gridlocked negotiations, President Bush threw his support behind the legislation yesterday despite the tens of billions of dollars in domestic spending above his original demands. Despite his original preference for a slimmed-down version, Bush embraced the veterans plan drafted by Sen. James Webb (D-Va.), then demanded that the education benefit be transferable from veterans to military spouses and children -- adding an estimated $1 billion a year to its cost.
"President Bush understands that military families throughout our country are making great sacrifices as their loved ones serve at home and abroad," White House press secretary Dana Perino said yesterday.
Under the program, often called the new GI Bill, veterans would receive enough money to pay even the most expensive state university tuition.
Bush and House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) praised the bill's unemployment benefits, which impose limits on the extension that could save taxpayers $2 billion.
Republicans also applauded the passage of another war bill without a deadline for troop withdrawals, something Pelosi and many Democrats had sought since early last year.
"The measure provides this critical funding without bogging it down with politically motivated surrender language," Boehner said.
But Democrats claimed the bill as possibly their biggest victory over the politically diminished president. In addition to opposing the Webb bill, Bush originally contended that increased unemployment benefits were premature because an economic stimulus package enacted in February needed time to take effect, and he opposed an additional effort to rein in his power over Medicaid, the medical insurance program for the poor.
"He is reversing three distinct veto threats and signing them into law. If that ain't a victory, I don't know what is," said Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.), chairman of the House Democratic Caucus.
The bill was broken into two parts, the first for war funds, which was overwhelmingly supported by Republicans and approved 268 to 155. The second part contained the domestic spending.
House Democrats had been pressuring their Senate counterparts and the White House to include some revenue and tax increases to pay for the veterans benefit, but they met stiff resistance and abandoned that effort.
Senate Democrats, who have not given their final approval to the plan, still could add money for other domestic measures, including home heating assistance for the poor. Any spending added to the bill would send it back to the House and continue what lawmakers have called a game of "legislative Ping-Pong" that has batted the bill back and forth across the Capitol in the hope of finding the right policy mix.
But Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) said yesterday that the package is overall a "pretty good bill" and could pass without changes.
Democrats pointed to two key moments that they say led the White House to support the expanded veterans benefits and unemployment insurance. Last month, 75 senators voted in favor of the domestic portion of the supplement, more than enough to override a Bush veto. And last week, two-thirds of House members supported the unemployment insurance provision in a stand-alone vote.
That vote came after the Labor Department reported that the jobless rate had increased to 5.5 percent in May, the single largest one-month increase since the 1980s.
Emanuel said the unemployment report and the earlier House and Senate votes sent a signal that congressional Republicans did not have the political willpower to support Bush.
"I think he said, 'You know, I don't have a card to hold,' " Emanuel said.