The still-evolving bill to pay for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan has rapidly become a political headache for Democratic and GOP leaders, as the debate over what to include in the measure has exacerbated intraparty tensions in both chambers.
The House Appropriations Committee could mark up the $100-plus billion emergency supplemental spending bill as early as Thursday, but knowledgeable Democratic aides cautioned last week that the schedule has not been confirmed and could spill into the week of March 12.
Procedurally, three legislative days are required after a bill has been dropped in order to have a markup, so if language is not circulated by Tuesday, a markup is unlikely to occur this week, aides said.
Staffers were expected to work through the weekend, and failure to produce language early in the week will be further indication of the challenges facing Democratic leaders to build consensus between the conservative and liberal flanks of the party who have vastly divergent views on the war that will be difficult to reconcile.
While Democratic leaders have emphasized their party’s unity on the mid-February resolution condemning the proposed troop increase, the supplemental measure is already straining that accord.
The divisions have presented a serious test for Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) leadership, as well as for Appropriations Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.), who must shepherd the legislation.
“It’s a big tent, and I’m glad I’m not in Nancy Pelosi’s shoes.” said Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.), co-chairwoman of the Progressive Caucus as well as the co-founder of the Out of Iraq Caucus.
Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.), chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee on Defense, has been a lightning rod for Democrats on the Iraq War since he announced plans — without first vetting it with leadership or the full Democratic Caucus — to include conditions and guidelines in the supplemental that critics have charged would unfairly restrict President Bush’s ability to conduct the war.
While Murtha appears to have relented on some of his stronger positions — such as putting in conditions that would make it difficult to fund the additional troops Bush wants to send to Iraq — after strong backlash from both sides of the aisle, there continues to be significant discontent among the rank-and-file Members who supported Murtha’s plan.
A potentially large segment of the Out of Iraq Caucus, which numbers 71 and overlaps heavily with the Progressive Caucus, is not expected to support the supplemental spending bill if it contains funds that do support the president’s plan to deploy more troops.
“The only conditions I’ll vote for are full-funding to bring our troops home from Iraq,” Woolsey said Thursday.
But the California lawmaker declined to say whether she and other anti-war lawmakers would vote against the bill if, combined with potential GOP opposition to the bill, it meant it would doom the measure.
“I hope we get to a place where that’s not necessary,” Woolsey said.
But while emergency funding requests for the Iraq War have previously received strong bipartisan support, Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) announced last week that Republicans were ready to take the rare step of formally whipping against the bill if it contained any measures that they believe would put roadblocks up for the White House on Iraq.
“I think placing arbitrary or punitive political hurdles before the commander in chief in a time of war, especially under the guise of supporting our troops, is wrong and it is reckless,” Boehner said late last week.
Boehner said the GOP would adhere to two principles in the supplemental: to oppose any effort to “put handcuffs” on Bush, or to add “unnecessary” additional spending in the bill that does not pertain to the war effort.
Democrats have floated the proposal to give the president waiver authority to make the terms outlined in the supplemental for troop readiness less binding, but Boehner said it was unclear if that would be enough.
“It may. But at the end of the day, these are unnecessary obstacles that will not support our troops … and will not support the president,” he said. “And if they want to cut the funding, they ought to have the courage to stand up and do it forthright.”
Rep. Bill Young (R-Fla.), the ranking member on the Defense subcommittee, said late last week that he did not believe waiver authority would be enough to appease most Republicans.
“I think it’s accurate to say that our leadership and our defense folks would be opposed to those restrictions with or without a waiver,” he said.
Democrats are also expected to include billions of dollars in additional funds in the supplemental for issues ranging from agriculture relief to the State Children’s Health Insurance Plan, among others. And knowledgeable Democratic aides have said they are considering including funds to improve conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
A spokesman for Pelosi said Democrats were hopeful Republicans would ultimately vote for the funding bill.
“Democrats want to make sure that our troops have the equipment and training they deserve and that the Iraqi government meets the benchmarks President Bush endorsed,” said spokesman Nadeam Elshami. “Republican leaders should be supporting our efforts and not threatening to vote against the troops and accountability in Iraq.”
If GOP leaders seek to make this vote a test of party loyalty, it will take a significant whip effort to get the rank-and-file Members to vote against a war supplemental. As one Democratic aide observed, it is difficult to explain the nuance of such votes to the public who see “a vote to shut down the supplemental as a vote to shut down the DOD.” The aide said leaders and appropriators are so far not fearful of being able to pass the bill on the House floor. “If [Boehner] wants to whip against it he does so at his party’s peril,” the aide said.
“If the Democrats insert language that really does hamstring our ability to fight and win this war, then I think it will be an easy whip,” countered a GOP leadership aide, adding that Democrats will face great difficulties uniting their own Caucus. “If it does nothing to hasten troop withdrawal, they lose their Members in the left wing, and if they do put conditions on funding, they lose a whole different segment of the Caucus.”
Meanwhile, Senate Republicans said the Democrats’ apparent inability to forge a consensus on how to address the Iraq War in the supplemental and in other ways made their opposition to funding restrictions or cuts much easier.
“One of the first rules of politics is when your opponent is in disarray, don’t stop them,” said Senate GOP Conference Vice Chairman John Cornyn (Texas). “That’s where the Democrats are right now. I don’t think they have a coherent strategy.”
Cornyn indicated that GOP opposition coupled with the possible objections of centrist Democrats likely would produce a supplemental “without any nonbinding resolutions or strings attached.”
Indeed, Democrats said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has little appetite for including funding restrictions in the supplemental.
One Democratic Senator said that view was largely shared within the Democratic leadership and Caucus. Additionally, the Senator indicated that Senate Appropriations Chairman Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) and other members of the spending panel would face pressure to keep any language restricting funds out of the committee mark of the bill.
“What is done will be done on the floor, not in committee,” said the Senator.
Byrd spokesman Tom Gavin said the topic of restricting funding in the supplemental has not even come up in talks among committee members.
“Has there been any discussion of putting strings on the supplemental? No,” Gavin said.
If such language is not included in the committee version of the bill, it likely will be much harder for any Senator to add restrictive provisions on the floor, because it would almost certainly be filibustered by Republicans, several Senators indicated.
Still, Democrats said they would continue to look for ways — either on the supplemental or in other legislation — to force the White House to change its tactics in Iraq.
“We are continuing discussions on how best to affect a change in the administration’s policy on Iraq,” said Reid spokesman Jim Manley.
Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), who serves as the ranking member on the Appropriations subcommittee on Defense, said his discussions with Democrats gave him “the feeling that they want this bill to pass, but they really want to challenge the president on a number of things.”
One of those “things,” Stevens said, was the addition of funds for poor children’s health insurance, continuing Gulf Coast hurricane disaster assistance, and other “emergency” funding issues that are not part of the Iraq War effort.
Stevens said Republican Senators may be forced to accept those add-ons, even if they oppose them, because Reid plans to vote on the measure in late March, which will leave precious little time to make sure the bill is reconciled with the House version and enacted before the Pentagon runs out of money on April 15.
“It will affect us and our willingness to accept things we might not otherwise accept under the circumstances,” said Stevens.
Gavin acknowledged that the Senate bill likely will include money for non-war-related emergency expenses, such as for recovery from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita and for SCHIP.
Manley confirmed that Reid plans to bring up the supplemental during the last week of March, right before the Senate is scheduled to break for a week-long recess. The Senate Appropriations Committee will mark up the bill March 20, Gavin said.
Stevens said he was unsure of what Senate Republicans’ reaction would be to any inclusion of funding restrictions in the bill, whether they were adopted in committee or on the floor. But he suggested that the restrictions might be easier to swallow if the president were given “the authorization to waive the restrictions in order to protect the forces.”
Jennifer Yachnin contributed to this report.