Senate Republicans have quietly laid the groundwork to force a vote on a “clean” emergency spending bill for Iraq but are holding off on the politically explosive move until it is clear that a bipartisan agreement on the legislation cannot be reached.
Across the Capitol, House lawmakers are on track to vote today on their newest version of the $95.5 billion supplemental spending bill for the Iraq War — which the Bush administration pre-emptively vowed to veto Wednesday — with Democratic leaders expected to eke out a second narrow victory that closely tracks the earlier vote.
Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) said he already has gathered enough signatures to file cloture, the procedural motion that would force a vote on whether to debate his measure “making emergency war appropriations for American troops overseas, without unnecessary pork barrel spending and without mandating surrender or retreat in Iraq.”
“The rifle is loaded and aimed. It could come at any time,” Coburn said of his attempt to offer an alternative to the Democrats’ recently vetoed spending bill, one that would have set timelines for withdrawal from Iraq and added more than $20 billion in unrelated domestic spending.
Coburn said he wants to force a vote on his bill to provide the $93 billion for the troops, because he believes it is a “shame” that the Senate is debating bills on the Food and Drug Administration and immigration, but not passing the troop-funding measure. House and Senate Democrats are moving separately to draft new versions of the war spending bill and have said they are hoping to have a compromise ready for the president by Memorial Day.
Coburn used routine Senate rules to get his bill placed on the Senate calendar last week — a move that would make it eligible for floor consideration at any time. If Republicans file cloture on the bill, the Senate would be forced to vote on whether to begin considering it.
“That would clarify who’s voting for what,” said Senate Minority Whip Trent Lott (R-Miss.).
However, Lott cautioned that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and other GOP leaders are not ready to use the tactic, which would doubtless be seen by the Democrats as a slap at Majority Leader Harry Reid’s (D-Nev.) prerogative to set the Senate agenda.
“As long as Sen. Reid and Sen. McConnell are talking … I think Members are reluctant to move forward,” Lott said of the general mood in the Senate Republican Conference.
But he added that Republicans are keeping the option open. “It may come to that,” he said.
Lott explained that if Republicans decided to use the strategy, McConnell — not Coburn — would offer the cloture motion.
Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) immediately dismissed the potential GOP move, saying Republicans would never get the 60 votes needed to invoke cloture on a bare-bones war spending bill.
“No member of the minority is ever going to be successful” at bringing up a bill against the majority’s wishes, Dorgan explained. By voting for cloture on Coburn’s bill, Dorgan said, “the majority would be giving up its ability to set the Senate schedule. That’s just a non-starter.”
While the House plans to vote today on a new war spending bill that would give President Bush access to part of the money and require separate Congressional votes in July to release the rest, Reid and McConnell continue working to find a compromise bill that can pass the Senate and that Bush might sign. And a number of bipartisan groups are hoping their efforts will aid in that endeavor.
Sen. John Warner (R-Va.) has been working with several Republicans and Democrats on language to supplant the timelines in the previous war spending bill, and he said he might be able to unveil a consensus plan this week.
Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), one of the Senators who has been working closely with Warner, said they were considering language that would allow — but not force — the president to withhold Iraq reconstruction funds if the nascent government does not achieve political reconciliation goals set by Bush in January. Nelson said the language also would likely include requirements on the Bush administration to brief Congress monthly on progress in Iraq.
Nelson said it is still possible that the language might also include requirements, included in the first war spending bill, that would force the president to certify that military units going to Iraq were trained, rested and equipped or sign a waiver saying he was sending them anyway.
Nelson added that he was unsure whether the Warner language would be included in the Senate version or surface in any House-Senate conference on the bill later this month.
Meanwhile, Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) is participating in talks with Warner and Nelson, as are Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Ken Salazar (D-Colo.), to name a few. Still, Snowe also is pursuing her own compromise with Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) that would force U.S. commanders in Iraq to devise a plan for the redeployment of forces if the Government Accountability Office finds that the Iraqi government is not meeting Bush’s benchmarks for political success.
In the House, Democratic leadership is expected to move their Iraq War spending package to the chamber floor today, with a second vote on an agricultural appropriations package slated to take place Friday.
Despite facing continued opposition from members of the liberal Out of Iraq Caucus — some of whom object to the continued funding of the war and have called for the measure to provide explicit timelines for withdrawal — Democratic leaders expect to win a slim passage of the measure, a two-tier funding package that would halt funds midsummer, pending a July vote on whether to withdraw troops from Iraq.
House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) evaded questions Wednesday about leadership efforts to bring lawmakers into line, faced with a window of less than three days from the bill’s unveiling to the vote: “I never put pressure on people,” Clyburn quipped, darting in and out of the House chamber.
But one Democratic lawmaker, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said efforts to whip Members have lessened noticeably since lawmakers voted in March on the first supplemental. Although he had been inundated by colleagues and aides prior to the last vote, the Member said in this round, he has been largely left alone.
“The expectation is that everyone will hold,” the Democrat said.
Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), who chairs the Out of Iraq Caucus and opposes the measure, said the faction will not whip their members against it.
Waters predicted, however, that the Democrats could lose some of their votes to lawmakers who would prefer a measure sponsored by Rep. David Price (D-N.C.) that would curtail the war powers authority granted to the president.
“The real possibility of defectors are from [there],” Waters said.
With House Republicans largely expected to oppose the bill along party lines, Democrats can afford to lose only a few votes to get the 217 needed to win passage.
House Appropriations Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.) criticized his Democratic colleagues who have objected to the new proposal, as well as the Bush administration, which already has threatened to veto the measure.
“I don’t know how much more we can do for either side,” Obey said, and later criticized the Senate majority as well, adding sarcastically: “We’re getting immensely helpful comments from some of our own Democratic Senators.”
The Wisconsin lawmaker said the newest bill represents a “reasonable compromise” and said he expects the measure will win the public support that will sway Bush to sign it.
“If he vetoes it, it demonstrates just how unreasonable he is,” Obey said.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) echoed that sentiment in a statement: “Even as the Congress addresses some of the White House’s concerns, the president waves his veto pen at any proposal that does not give him a blank check for a war without end in Iraq.”
White House spokesman Tony Snow said Wednesday the president would veto the House proposal in its current form, citing restrictions on the funds as well as spending items not directly tied to the war effort.
“We continue to have conversations with members of the House and Senate, trying to put together something that’s acceptable,” Snow said.
Although House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) said Congress should reexamine funding in September, he criticized the Democrats’ new proposal in an interview with CNN, equating it to “a monthly allowance” for the military.
Parameters for the House debate had yet to be finalized at press time, when the House Rules Committee was scheduled to meet.