In war-funding vote, Democrats cast doubts on Obama's Afghan policy

A look inside the partnership between U.S. Marines and Afghan soldiers in an area in southern Afghanistan called Marja
By Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 2, 2010; 2:11 AM

Democrats in the House begrudgingly approved an additional $37 billion to fund the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan on Thursday, as a growing number of members of President Obama's own party cast doubts about his strategy in Afghanistan.

The funding bill, which passed by a vote of 215-210, would allocate money for equipment and support to troops in both countries, including the additional 30,000 Obama ordered there last December. The Senate must still approve the legislation, totaling about $80 billion.

But the complicated process to push the bill through the House illustrated the widespread doubts about the war policy among Democrats, even as they backed Obama's selection of Gen. David H. Petraeus last week to command the troops in . Aware of the ardent opposition of some members, House Democratic leaders had stalled for weeks on scheduling a troop funding vote.

And before they approved the war funding, a block of Democrats insisted on holding votes on a series of measures to show their disapproval of the war.

One hundred fifty-three House Democrats and nine Republicans voted for an amendment, sponsored by Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), that would require Obama to present a plan by next April for the "safe, orderly and expeditious redeployment of U.S. troops" and allow a vote in Congress to stop additional war funding if withdrawal does not start by next July, the time administration officials have said they will start reducing forces in Afghanistan.

Ninety-three Democrats, along with seven Republicans, backed an even more restrictive amendment from Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) that would allow the war funds to be spent only on withdrawing troops from Afghanistan.

Neither amendment passed, because nearly all Republicans opposed them, along with many Democrats. But frustration with the war is so widespread that two lawmakers in charge of shepherding the bill through the House, Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey (D-Wisc.) and Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.), who heads the Rules Committee that establishes the procedures for votes on legislation, both said that the war is unwinnable and that they were merely fulfilling their duties as committee chairs in moving the funding toward a vote.

"If I had my way, I would never bring this to the floor," said Obey, whose committee presents spending bills to the broader House. "I believe this is a fool's errand."

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), who opposed the amendments, said that "from my perspective, we need to give him more time," referring to Obama. But Hoyer added of the war, "there is a growing level of concern -- the vote reflected it."

While Obey has long criticized the war, several members of Congress who had previously said they wanted to give Obama's policy a chance to succeed expressed new doubts about it. Only 60 Democrats backed a resolution in March that called for ending the war by the end of the year.

"To me, the interesting thing about the Rolling Stone article was not about McChrystal, it was the general sense we'll never know what success looks like," said Rep. John Yarmuth (D-Ky.) who voted for the McGovern and Lee resolutions. "I'm not sure we will ever know we are winning." Yarmouth referred to Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal's ouster as Afghan war commander last week after his controversial remarks in a Rolling Stone magazine article.

Democrats also inserted $10 billion into the legislation in aid to states for education, looking to avert widespread layoffs of teachers and other state employees that could occur this year, given that many state governments are running short of money. The teacher funding was less than half of the $23 billion that Democrats had pushed for earlier this year, as deficit-wary Democratic members in the House and Senate balked at the additional spending.

The bill also included the Democrats' budget outline for the year, in which they pledged to set a limit of $1.121 trillion for spending in various federal programs. The non-binding measure was passed in lieu of the more controversial alternative of writing a five-year budget plan, as Congress usually does. Democrats were wary of producing a document that would probably show huge deficits for years to come.

The outline lays out about $7 billion less in spending for the next fiscal year than Obama had requested in his budget, but Republicans criticized Democrats for not producing a full budget.

Republicans have generally supported the war in Afghanistan and Obama's troop increase, but they voted against the bill after Democrats inserted a number of domestic spending measures into it, including the teacher funding.

The GOP said the Democrats' decision to add funding for education delayed the Pentagon getting money it needs. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates had urged Congress to approve the war spending before the July 4 recess, saying the money will be needed soon to support troops in the field, although it is expected that the Pentagon can use other funds until Congress approves new funding.

If the House had simply adopted the Senate-approved war bill, Obama could have signed it into law as soon as Friday, but the Senate must now vote on the changes the House made, such as the addition of the teacher funding.

"How can we go home to watch fireworks and salute the flag on the Fourth of July without giving these brave men and women the resources they need to keep fighting for our freedom?" said House Republican Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio). "Our troops deserve better."

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