Senate Approves War Funding Bill After Obama Presses Democrats

By Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 19, 2009

A war funding bill passed the Senate overwhelmingly yesterday, but the 91 to 5 vote came after a fractured process that included objections from Republicans and Democrats alike, and required President Obama to intervene repeatedly to lobby members of his own party for his foreign policy vision.

The final version of the $105.9 billion bill, which provides funding for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan through Sept. 30, largely backs Obama's strategy to increase U.S. forces and resources in Afghanistan. But the bill, which passed the House this week and probably will be signed into law by Obama in a few days, also makes substantial changes to what his administration proposed to Congress in April.

Worried about releasing or permanently incarcerating detainees from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in their districts or states, lawmakers stripped $80 million from the bill to implement Obama's plan to close the detention facility there, instead allowing the administration to bring detainees to the United States only for trials.

At the insistence of House Democrats opposed to increasing the number of troops in Afghanistan, the administration will be required to submit to Congress its policy objectives in Afghanistan and Pakistan and metrics to measure this progress, including formal reports every six months, starting next year.

"I thought we needed to wrap up the wars," said Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez (R-Ill.), who initially opposed the war funding bill before Obama personally lobbied him on an Air Force One flight from Chicago to Washington on Monday. "But he said it was important for his administration not to lose momentum."

At Obama's behest, the bill includes $7.7 billion to prepare for pandemic flu and funding to offer an increased line of credit to the International Monetary Fund. Congress added $1 billion to start the "cash for clunkers" program that will give Americans vouchers of as much as $4,500 to turn in their old cars and purchase more fuel-efficient ones.

Congress has agreed to increase anti-narcotics funding for Mexico, providing an additional $420 million this year to buy helicopters, surveillance aircraft and computers for police and soldiers fighting traffickers. The White House had asked Congress to add $66 million in the bill for Mexico's drug war -- about enough to buy three helicopters. But lawmakers had become alarmed about the soaring death toll across the border, and they raised the total.

At the insistence of House Democrats, a provision the White House had sought to bar the release of photos showing abuse of detainees in U.S. custody abroad was removed from the final bill. Obama has said the photos could ignite anti-American sentiments abroad and potentially endanger U.S. soldiers, but House Democrats said the issue should be left to the courts.

An appeals court in New York ruled last year the photos must be released, but earlier this month said it would delay the release, as the administration has said it will seek either to change federal law or appeal to the Supreme Court to keep the photos classified.

The Obama administration said that this "emergency" spending bill would be the last of its kind, and that subsequent war spending would go through the regular budget process. Congress has authorized $882 billion in 17 such funding bills for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001, according to the Office of Management and Budget.

The two wars are likely to see major changes over the course of the next year. The Obama administration is sending 21,000 more troops into Afghanistan, which brings the total U.S. force there to about 68,000 troops, the highest level since the war began. The Pentagon is also sending in additional helicopters, surveillance planes and advanced ground sensors. In Iraq, the administration plans to shrink the size of the force to about 50,000 troops by the summer of 2010.

The bill's passage completed a process that had become complicated, even though members of both parties initially praised the bill. Republicans quickly seized on the Guantanamo Bay funding, suggesting that Obama was about to put accused terrorists on U.S. streets.

The administration relented on its plan to release any detainees or put them in U.S. prisons but has insisted it will close the prison by January. After the Senate vote, several top security officials, including deputy national security adviser Thomas E. Donilon, pressed Senate Democrats to allow the transfer of detainees to the United States for trial. Democrats, assured there was no formal provision in the bill to release detainees into the United States, agreed to the compromise.

The Guantanamo provision, which bars the transfer of detainees except for trial, lasts until Sept. 30.

As part of a separate bill that funds the Department of Homeland Security, the House passed a bill that would allow some transfer of detainees from Guantanamo for incarceration after the U.S. government assesses whether any pose a security threat. Most Republicans opposed that idea, which could be blocked in the Senate. In addition, by 213 to 212, the majority of Democrats stopped an attempt by Republicans and some Democrats to bar any use of funds to close the prison.

The IMF funding also drew opposition. Obama had asked Senate leaders last month to insert a provision that would allow the United States to provide about $100 billion to an overall $ 1.1 trillion pledge by Group of 20 nations for a rescue package designed to help both rich and poor nations through the current economic crisis.

Because the money is in loans that are expected to be repaid, the Congressional Budget Office estimated it costs the U.S. government $5 billion.

But House Republicans, who have backed Obama's policies for Iraq and Afghanistan, almost unanimously opposed the bill after the insertion of what they dubbed "a global bailout."

The Senate, which includes fewer strongly antiwar Democrats, delayed the passage of the bill yesterday as a group of members, mainly Republicans, objected to the clunker language, arguing that it had nothing to do with war funding. But in the end, only a handful of members opposed the legislation.

"I do not like everything in this bill," Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) said. "I am not going to be an open checkbook for another war. But I believe this administration gets it."

Staff writers Mary Beth Sheridan and Greg Jaffe contributed to this report.

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