So far unable to find another magic compromise on an Iraq War spending bill, House and Senate Democratic leaders are retreating in the short term to politically safer ground by taking up competing measures that likely will only pass muster in their respective chambers.
“The stars lined up for the first supplemental, and we’re struggling to get them lined up again,” said Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.).
Following President Bush’s veto last week of the first Iraq spending bill over timelines for withdrawal, House and Senate Democratic leaders indicated they would try to pre-conference a bill that could pass both chambers, but Members on both sides of the Capitol on Tuesday indicated that Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) capacity to pass a bill with only Democrats made it difficult to find a middle ground in the Senate, where Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) needs Republican votes to prevail.
The House plans to move forward as early as Thursday with a two-tier bill that would continue to fund military operations until late-summer, but would require subsequent Congressional approval to reach the end of the fiscal year.
Senate Democratic leaders, meanwhile, have not decided what form their bill will take, but it is unlikely to trigger another vote on funding and could include mild benchmarks for the Iraqi government to meet in order to receive reconstruction funding.
“There are two different political dynamics between what they need to do in the House and what we need to do in the Senate,” said Durbin.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said he anticipates that the two chambers will pass widely divergent bills.
“I think this is an approach … that moves us forward and gets us to conference. And we’ll have to see where we go from there,” Hoyer said.
House Democratic sources said Pelosi is teeing up the short-term measure in order to mollify Democratic liberals, even though she expects to have to ask those Members to vote for a conference report less to their liking.
Hoyer did not go that far, but said, “The House wants to accomplish its work in a way that it sees best expressing its policy.”
But Senate Democrats remain highly dubious about the House plan, even though they acknowledge that it serves as a useful step to ensuring they can pass a second supplemental before leaving for the Memorial Day recess.
Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) said both chambers need to act quickly.
“They’re doing what they think it right,” said Levin. “Hopefully, they’ll send it over quickly so we can do what we think is right.”
Indeed, Levin and other pivotal Democratic Senators coming out of their regular Tuesday lunch cast doubt on whether the Senate could pass a short-term war funding bill and questioned the practical and political wisdom of doing so.
Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), who provided the crucial 51st vote on the original war supplemental and is likely to be a conferee on the second version, poured cold water all over the House proposal, saying he sensed that it “would be dead on arrival over here.”
Nelson explained that Senate Democrats “need to get a domestic agenda. … We don’t need to be fighting over war funding in July.”
As for whether the House might be able to prevail in a conference, Nelson said, “If there’s a compromise to be reached, I don’t think that’s it.”
Levin also cast doubt on whether Senate Democrats would embrace the House bill.
“It’s not workable,” he said. “There’s no use putting it out there that we’re going to cut funding for the troops when we’re not going to cut funding for the troops.”
Republicans also wasted no time attacking the House plan. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) told reporters that GOP Senators would not vote for the bill if it came up in the chamber.
“I don’t think there’ll be much, if any, Republican support for a bifurcated supplemental,” he said.
Still, Reid said he remains open to the short-term funding bill and that talks with House Democrats were continuing.
“We’re working toward a solution that is not there yet,” he said. He added later, “Nothing’s been ruled out and nothing’s been ruled in, as far as I’m concerned.”
One senior Senate Democratic aide said Reid is not pooh-poohing the House bill primarily because he wants to “demonstrate [Democratic] unity in light of the obstructionist tactics of this ‘Just Say No’ White House.”
Under the proposal outlined by House Appropriations Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.), the two-tier spending bill would require Congress to approve the full $95.5 billion allotted for military operations in Iraq. However, only $30 billion of that amount would be made immediately available, enough to fund troops for about two to three months.
The remaining funds could be distributed to the military only after a subsequent vote by lawmakers, which would occur in late July under the current proposal.
The Democratic plan contains an additional provision, which closely tracks a proposal from liberal members of the majority, that would allow House lawmakers to also vote in late July on whether to redeploy troops from Iraq before voting on whether to extend the remaining funds.
Although Hoyer indicated Tuesday that such a vote could mandate a troop withdrawal within 180 days, an aide later said he misspoke. When asked whether the bill would mandate any actual withdrawal table, Obey shook his head “no” on Tuesday.
“Those who want to see a different path would have a straight shot of having their amendment adopted,” Obey said Tuesday. Regardless of how that vote falls, Obey noted, the House intends to take up the fiscal 2008 Defense Department spending bill at the same time, to allow for a seamless transition.
“The real vote is going to come … on the ’08 bill,” Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.), chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee on Defense, asserted Tuesday.
Members of both the Out of Iraq Caucus and the Progressive Caucus, which overlap in membership, offered mixed reactions to the measure Tuesday, however, both praising the inclusion of the withdrawal vote while also criticizing continued funding of the war.
Rep. Diane Watson (D-Calif.) exited the weekly Caucus meeting criticizing Democratic leaders for suggesting the bill will move to the floor as early as this week, asserting that Members did not have sufficient detail about the proposal — which has yet to be introduced — and said she was “frustrated.”
In addition to military funds, the spending bill would include money for those areas damaged by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, as well as to provide for veterans’ health care, children’s health care and provisions to increase the federal minimum wage.
The House proposal also includes funds for agricultural programs, including drought assistance that would be addressed in a separate vote, possibly as early as Friday, Hoyer said in a press conference.
Hoyer added that the two halves “may be married up in the end of our conference.”
Obey declined to predict whether the supplemental could be finished before the Memorial Day recess, saying, “My goal is simply to do the right thing. I don’t care much when it happens.”
Minority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) said Tuesday talk of wrapping up the bill before Memorial Day was unrealistic unless Democrats were willing to bend and work with the White House. “That [time frame] is not possible to do unless you get serious about negotiating a bill the president can sign,” he told reporters.
GOP leaders have said Democrats should offer a clean funding bill through at least September, at which time Gen. David Petraeus is expected to give a progress update to Congress on the execution of President Bush’s war strategy.
Though the Senate version is still a work in progress, Reid noted that several bipartisan groups were still working on a way to set benchmarks for either the U.S. military, the Iraqi government or both as part of the next supplemental.
For example, Sens. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) and Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) are expected to announce their proposal today.
The Snowe-Bayh bill would require the Iraqi government to make “substantial progress” toward political reconciliation among warring factions in the country. The Government Accountability Office would have to conduct a review of the benchmarks set out in the bill 120 days after enactment, and if any of the benchmarks had not been met, the U.S. commander in Iraq would have to come up with a plan for the redeployment of U.S. forces.
While the House proposal contains benchmarks like those in the first supplemental, Hoyer noted Tuesday that, “There’s no automatic result of the benchmarks not being met,” although Congress would consider progress on those items before its secondary vote in July. However, he added that “economic consequences” could still be included in the bill.
The House measure also contains mandates authored by Murtha requiring the Bush administration to certify troops are meeting existing guidelines on rest periods and readiness, and would require a waiver when exempting troops form those rules.
Susan Davis contributed to this report.