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Bush Could Get Iraq Blank Check

Despite their rhetoric about not wanting to hand President Bush another “blank check” for the Iraq War, Democrats appear poised to give him exactly that — enough cash to keep the war going full steam for as long as six months, no strings attached.

Democratic leaders continue to fear GOP attacks that cutting off or slowing funds would hurt the troops, despite anger among the Democratic base over the party’s failure to use Congress’ power of the purse to end the war.

And while House Appropriations Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.) and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) have said they have no intention of bringing up Bush’s almost $200 billion supplemental war funding proposal this year without a timeline for withdrawal, Democrats are quietly preparing to give the president enough spending flexibility to keep the war going anyway.

After Republicans repeatedly rebuffed Democratic attempts to adopt war restrictions in September following Army Gen. David Petraeus’ testimony to Congress, Democrats began approving billions in extra funding, starting with the first stopgap spending resolution. Next up will be the regular Defense spending bill, expected to go to conference committee Tuesday. Although the bill is not expected to include funding specifically targeted to Iraq, Democrats plan to allow much of the funding to be diverted from regular Defense accounts to the war. Democratic Defense appropriators also are separately eyeing adding tens of billions in war funds, either in a small separate supplemental or attached to the next must-pass stopgap continuing resolution. They had sought to include $50 billion or more in such supplemental funding in the Defense bill itself, but leadership overrode that idea after the party’s most ardent war foes complained.

Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.), chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense, said last week the Defense Department should be able to keep the war going “until May or June” with the extra flexibility and partial funding.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) also indicated Friday that Democrats are thinking of including war funding in the next CR. The existing CR expires Nov. 16.

One well-placed Senate Democratic aide said funding the war “in short bursts” is one of the things being discussed, but that the Democrats’ war strategy still has many unknowns.

“A lot of this depends on whether or not Republicans continue to protect the president and for how long,” said the aide. “That will help us determine whether or not we take incremental steps or if we’re able to push forward with timeline-slash-redeployment legislation.”

One Senate Democratic leadership aide acknowledged that Democrats will continue to fund the troops but said that does not prevent the majority from also forcing a change in the way the war is being waged.

“No one is going to leave the troops who are in harm’s way without the resources they need, but this is not an either-or proposition,” said the aide. “We can ensure our troops are taken care of while at the same time fighting to bring them home.”

In the meantime, Democrats acknowledge that voters are frustrated with Congress over the issue.

“I don’t approve of Congress, because we haven’t done anything, we haven’t been effective in ending the war in Iraq, and if you asked me in a [pollster’s] phone call, as ardent a Democrat as I am, I would disapprove of Congress as well,” Pelosi said last week.

Meanwhile, Pelosi said that more Iraq legislation aimed at changing the war policy will be forthcoming “soon,” she but declined to say what form it would take.

Liberals, meanwhile, have lost their patience and say Democratic leaders have continued to allow Bush to frame the debate by not getting tough on refusing to provide funding for anything other than redeployment.

“As long as leadership is not willing to challenge the way the president is hiding behind the troops, they’re going to continue to get rolled,” said a Democratic aide to a member of the Out of Iraq Caucus.

Emily Pierce contributed to this report.