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Obey Predicts Late December Finish

Approps Train Wreck Awaits

It’s starting to look like this year’s appropriations train wreck won’t have a happy ending any time soon, with House Appropriations Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.) pointing to sleigh bells in our future and no thaw in the frosty relations between top Democrats and the White House.

“I personally would be surprised if we’re out before Dec. 22,” Obey said at a Monday luncheon at the National Press Club. But Obey, asked about the possibility of a stopgap spending bill that would last until February when Democrats could tie domestic spending to the looming $200 billion war supplemental, said he much preferred to finish this year.

“We need to clear the deck and get on with next year’s business next year,” Obey said. “Whatever the decisions are going to be, we need to make those decisions.”

And as for why Congress hasn’t cut off funding for the war or passed prohibitions against an attack on Iran, Obey offered, “It’s not that easy.” Obey said he’s not aware of Congress ever cutting off funds for troops while boots were on the ground, including in Vietnam.

Obey, meanwhile, lamented that President Bush and Office of Management and Budget Director Jim Nussle have been unwilling to negotiate on an overall spending number, which Obey argued was thwarting the will of the American people as Bush seeks to bolster his support from the right.

“It is clear, regardless of what the American people want, he feels he can govern as a minority government so long as he is supported by one-third of the American people and one-third plus one of the Congress,” Obey said.

“That leaves us with two choices: We can either sit by like potted plants and do nothing but meekly comply or we can try to make it as difficult as possible for the president to be irresponsible and artificially confrontational,” he said.

First up is the combined package on military construction, Veterans Affairs, Labor, Health and Human Services and Education, which Democrats see as the distillation of their priorities and the toughest combination for Republican lawmakers to vote against. The veterans’ bill passed with overwhelming majorities and House Republicans only barely mustered a veto-sustaining minority on the Labor-HHS bill.

That’s not to say that Democrats expect to prevail on an override, or even in the final endgame. But they want to make their points and go down swinging.

“With milcon-Labor-HHS, we will show that they don’t have the same priorities as the American people,” said a House Democratic leadership aide. “They will have to decide whether to vote with their constituents or rubber-stamp the president. Republicans aren’t making investments at home a priority, and they are all talk when it comes to taking care of our veterans,” the aide said.

Democrats, meanwhile, plan to convene a Defense spending conference as soon as today, having decided to separate it out from an original triple-combo package. Democrats still were considering whether and what else to put into the bill on Monday night, or whether to move forward with the straight bill.

The leadership aide acknowledged that the bill, and Defense spending in general, is a “sticky wicket” for Democrats. The bill includes transfer authority that would allow President Bush to continue the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan for months, and Democrats are still considering whether to add some supplemental war funding either to the bill or separately.

“You have liberals who don’t want to put forward any funding other than for redeployment and you have conservative Members who only want to do full funding,” said the leadership aide. “It’s not a simple bill, and then we have to get something through the Senate.”

The aide acknowledged that Bush has the upper hand with his veto pen. That’s especially true given that Democrats appear unwilling to put the squeeze on war funds — perhaps Bush’s top priority — lest they be painted as opposing the troops.

“Everybody’s been saying for months that we’re at a disadvantage here. He’s at 30 percent and he’s sticking with his base 100 percent.” Failing to get victories on appropriations “has nothing to do with the Democrats’ ability to game-plan.”

“We are making the best of a difficult situation. He definitely holds a lot of cards. We are going to make them take a very painful vote, and it’s not where most of America stands.”

A Senate leadership aide said on Monday that how Democrats decide to proceed — both on the continuing resolution and this year’s appropriations bills — will depend on how events in both chambers play out this week. “I think a lot of that will depend on how this week plays out, what happens with DOD … and what we do with war spending,” the aide said.

Republicans and Democrats alike said how the Senate Parliamentarian handles an expected GOP effort to split the Labor and veterans’ spending bills also will have a significant impact on how Democrats proceed with the appropriations process.

“If it does split, then it really throws whatever game plan they have out of whack,” a GOP leadership aide argued.

Republicans this week are expected to invoke provisions of the new ethics bill barring Members from adding earmarks to spending bills during conference to force Democrats to take up the bills individually. Republicans in both chambers say they can sustain a presidential veto of the Labor bill.

Additionally, the GOP leadership aide said Republicans will use a floor strategy similar to their fight over the war supplemental this year to attack Democrats for wasteful spending.

Senate Republican Conference Chairman Jon Kyl (Ariz.) and other Republicans are expected to pick a series of floor fights with Democrats over questionable earmarks inserted into the Labor spending bill as part of that effort. “We had a good time with [the supplemental] debate. It united our guys and it did resonate” with the public, the aide said.

But by attaching it to the veterans’ spending measure — which has become a major political issue in the wake of the Walter Reed Army Medical Center scandal — Democrats are hoping to peel off enough GOP lawmakers facing tough re-election fights next year to break ranks with the White House if Bush were to veto a combined package. However, while the final decision will rest with the Senate Parliamentarian, Democrats and Republicans alike said it is unlikely the decision to link the bills will be overruled.

Regardless of how that debate plays out, both sides are expected to make veterans’ spending a major component of their messaging activities this week.

For instance, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has for the past several weeks been pressing Democrats on the need to have the veterans’ spending bill signed into law before next week’s annual Veterans Day celebrations — a goal that almost certainly will not be met. Republicans said they will use similar charges to attack Democrats this week, and will look to portray the decision to link the two bills as a “politicization” of veterans’ care.

Democrats also are making veterans’ spending a key message issue, and will trade charges of politicization with their GOP colleagues through much of the week. For instance, according to talking points circulated to Senate offices on Monday by Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), Democrats will use the fact that Republicans overwhelmingly backed both measures as evidence that their opposition to combining the bills is purely political.

“Senate Republicans who voted overwhelming for both the Mil-Con/VA bill and the Labor-HHS bills a few weeks ago are now trying to block us from sending both bills to the President. If Senate Republicans and President Bush are as concerned with our veterans’ well being as they claim to be, they will join us in supporting this conference report,” the talking points argue.

And Obey bristled at the Republican charges that Democrats are holding veterans’ funding hostage, noting that only once in the past five years did Republican Congresses send an individual veterans’ spending bill to the president.

Obey said Republican charges that the maneuver would delay funding for veterans “is enough to give hypocrisy a bad name,” given that the GOP-led Congress last year failed to pass a veterans spending bill at all.

“They simply shut down the Congress and went home,” Obey said.