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Reid Loath to Leave Town With Another CR

When it comes to funding the government and the Iraq War, Congressional Democrats may have to make a proverbial deal with the devil in the next three weeks.

[IMGCAP(1)]With President Bush ratcheting up his opposition to spending more than he has requested and agitating for Democrats to give him the “blank check” for Iraq that he so badly wants, the majority could find itself in the uncomfortable position of having to choose whether to provide additional domestic spending for health care, education and veterans or to stand firm against the president on the war.

Of course, the beginning of the end of a Congressional session often starts off with adamant refusals to budge at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, and then ends with a great deal of movement on both sides.

And the current situation has plenty of unknowns: Are enough Republicans willing to override a presidential veto if Democrats cut out much of the additional spending? Will the president negotiate with Democrats on a compromise if they don’t give him the Iraq funding he wants? Will centrist Democrats support Iraq funding without troop pullout timelines? How much does the desire to leave town before Christmas Eve affect all of that?

For now, Democrats are mightily resisting the White House’s push to tie Iraq funds to keeping the government afloat for the next year.

“The White House is trying to link them,” said Jim Manley, spokesman for Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). “But the last time I checked, they don’t have a vote up here.”

Still, it doesn’t appear that Democrats are going to be able to have their cake and eat it, too, given that House Republicans, and, to a lesser extent, Senate Republicans, are vowing to uphold any presidential vetoes on spending bills. Though some Republicans have indicated a willingness to back funding levels slightly higher than the president’s, few have advocated the Democrats’ proposal to exceed Bush’s budget by nearly $11 billion.

That creates the possibility that Democrats would have to either craft an omnibus appropriations bill that meets the president’s overall spending caps or pass a continuing resolution that keeps the government funded at current levels. They also could attempt an amalgamation of the two, funding some agencies through a CR and others through an omnibus.

First, however, Democrats say they will probably send Bush an omnibus that folds 11 annual spending bills into one, cuts their own budget by $11 billion, but still comes in $11 billion over the president’s $933 billion request. That’s something the president is very likely to veto. But a House Democratic aide warned that a second, post-veto omnibus at the president’s number would rip out Republican spending priorities.

“If we have to go too low, the Republicans aren’t getting anything,” the aide said. “The first thing that’s going to go is everything Republicans care about.”

Earmarks could also be on the chopping block. House Appropriations Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.) has repeatedly suggested slicing earmarks to spare domestic programs from a deeper budget axe.

“Obey is sick and tired of the Republican leadership demagoguing earmarks while all of the Republican Members are asking for earmarks,” the Democratic aide said. “If Republicans reject a compromise, he’s likely to advocate to just get rid of all of them.”

The other, less palatable option for Democrats is to dump their insistence on tying troop- withdrawal dates to the $50 billion “bridge” funding for Iraq in exchange for the White House’s acquiescence on additional domestic spending. That’s a deal that’s already been made once this Congress, when Bush signed a supplemental war-funding bill that included nearly $17 billion in “emergency” domestic spending.

But considering Democrats took a fair amount of heat from their liberal base this spring for making that war deal, both Reid and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) appear loath to poke that tiger again.

One senior Senate Democratic aide said Democratic leaders this week would likely attempt to find out “what everyone’s fortitude is on these different issues … and how that puzzle can somehow come together.” Notably, they will also be taking “the temperature of Senate Democratic [moderates]” to find out whether they would vote for a bridge fund without any strings attached as part of an omnibus appropriations package, the aide said.

Though Democratic leaders are unlikely to offer such a “blank check” bridge fund, Republicans may offer the amendment, and their success would largely depend on the votes of centrist Democrats, the aide said.

Indeed, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) hinted at that possibility Monday, saying, “I think a better way to deal with it would be to wrap it all together and do both the troop funding and the spending bills together.”

But when he was asked Monday whether there was any chance this year that Democrats would pass an Iraq bridge fund with no strings attached, Reid responded, “I don’t think so.” He also rejected the notion of trading “clean” Iraq funding for domestic spending.

Additionally, Reid hinted that he might be able to secure more Republican support for yet another vote, possibly this week, on Iraq funding and withdrawals.

“I have reason to believe there’s been some changes on both sides. I think that there is a general feeling that President Bush is unreasonable,” Reid said. “The Republicans, I think, feel that way also. That being the case, maybe there’s some way we can work something out.”

Still, he said Democrats are working on an offer that would be “something a little different. But we’ll have to wait and see on that.” So far, Democrats have only been able to secure 53 votes for drawing down troops in Iraq, less than the 60 needed to overcome a filibuster.

Outside of Iraq War funding, Democrats risk political jeopardy if they do not somehow fund the government before leaving for the holidays, because they savaged Republicans last year for punting their appropriations bills to the next year.

“I feel very strongly that we need to fund the government [and] that I do not want to leave this year — or this Congressional session — without passing appropriation bills,” Reid said. “I don’t want to do a CR. I’m going to do everything within my power to make sure that we don’t do another CR.”

But McConnell said any omnibus that the president does not have a hand in writing is doomed.

“What we would like to have is a presidential signature. And any negotiation that doesn’t include the president, of course, is not going anywhere,” he said.

Still, Bush has shown no inclination to negotiate. Only the Defense Department appropriations measure has been signed. Bush vetoed the Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education spending bill, but no others have been sent to him.

And Bush attempted to up the ante Monday threatening — again — to veto “an irresponsible spending bill,” which he has defined as a bill that does not meet his spending caps.

Republicans, meanwhile, think they have Democrats on the ropes on appropriations.

“I think it’s probably a little late for Democrats to be feigning bipartisanship, and they’re going to need more than just empty gestures to sell this ungodly spending spree to the American people right before Christmas,” said Brian Kennedy, spokesman for House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio).

Echoed another House GOP leadership aide, “They are going to lose and they are going to be forced to pass a CR, period. They are well aware of the fact that if they go for an omnibus we will sustain the president’s veto. Bring it on!”

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