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Appropriations Lines Softening

Small Signs of Flexibility Appearing on Both Sides

Democrats and Republicans on Tuesday began creating some rhetorical flexibility for themselves as they gear up for long-awaited negotiations with the White House over funding both the government and the Iraq War.

Senate Democratic leaders, in particular, seemed to step back from their previous refusals to even consider providing Iraq War funding without troop withdrawal timelines, tacitly acknowledging that in order to get the entire federal government funded for 2008 they may have to give some ground.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said he was willing to entertain any proposal from Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) or others that would help him avoid passing a continuing resolution that would fund the government at current levels.

“I’m not an unreasonable person. … If Sen. McConnell has a proposal, I would walk over to his office. I’ll meet with him in some secret cubbyhole. I’ll do whatever is necessary,” a clearly frustrated Reid said Tuesday.

He added, “I want to work something out, but I can’t do it out of thin air. … Someone representing the people in the White House has to talk to me, and I have heard nothing from anyone, even though I have personally reached out to them.”

Reid wants to pass new appropriations bills with increased funding for domestic programs, but President Bush has proposed significant cuts in domestic spending and has been hinting he will not budge on that unless Democrats give him war funding without any timelines for withdrawal or other conditions.

That being the case, Reid seemed to hold out the prospect that Democrats could scale back their proposal to tie a short-term $50 billion measure for the war to troop withdrawals by the end of next year.

“We have offered the president, I think, a sweetheart deal — $50 billion with some minimal accountability,” Reid said. “That’s where we are. Unless I hear something different from them, that’s where we are.”

Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) indicated that the White House appears to have the upper hand in dealing with Congress on funding issues.

“We’re dealing with the reality that the White House has given us some very stark choices in terms of the appropriations process and we’re still determined to change this policy in Iraq, but we’re trying to do it in the context of the latest White House positions,” he explained.

Durbin said he personally would not be happy pursuing a proposal by Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) to force the White House to change the mission in Iraq to one that likely would require fewer troops. The plan, however, would not have any dates for withdrawals.

“I want more but I am also a realist,” Durbin said.

Republicans did not go as far as Democrats in saying they were willing to compromise, but McConnell appeared to choose his words carefully when talking about any potential deal on 11 annual appropriations bills and Iraq War funds. While House Republicans have been pushing for Congress to simply pass a yearlong continuing resolution that keeps the government funded at current levels, McConnell came close to rejecting that notion.

“I think the preference of the majority of the House and Senate is to deal with the appropriations issue with an omnibus,” McConnell said, adding, “although, a CR is certainly an alternative.”

McConnell also essentially endorsed short-term funding for Iraq, saying a measure that would fund the war until March would be acceptable and perhaps the only doable option at this point in the year.

McConnell also struck a conciliatory tone on the other must-pass legislation facing the Senate over the next three weeks.

“There’s going to be a high level of cooperation in trying to pass the measures I just outlined,” he said.

Across the Capitol, House Republicans continued to talk tough on keeping to the president’s spending level but seemed to suggest that there might be some room for negotiation if Democrats are willing to provide funding for Iraq.

House Republican Conference Chairman Adam Putnam (Fla.) said it’s too early to say if Bush would veto an omnibus. Putnam said it would depend on a lot of factors, including whether Democrats stick to the $933 billion budget cap, whether they include funding for Iraq without strings attached and what policy riders are added.

Putnam said the problem for Democrats is that so many of their Members won’t vote for anything with war funding included, and he said that might cause Democrats to reach out to Republicans in the end.

“How do they get enough votes on their side for an unfettered war funding bill? Maybe the circumstances are such that they maybe have to work with us,” he said.

House Democrats, meanwhile, said they saw no urgency in moving war funding. Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel (Ill.) said the Pentagon had enough money to fund the wars until March.

Democrats already have cut in half their original proposal to spend $22 billion more than the president and continue to prepare an omnibus spending bill that wraps 11 of the 12 appropriations bills into one. The president already has signed the Defense Department appropriations bill, and he vetoed the Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and related agencies measure Congress sent him.

For all the flexibility Democrats and Republicans appear to be building into their talking points, the White House still appears unmoved from it’s position.

“We’re at a point where many different members on both sides of Capitol Hill are saying different things, and it would appear that strategies are changing by the minute,” Office of Management and Budget spokesman Sean Kevelighan said. He added, “They should put a spending bill together that they can send to the president, and then we can have a better understanding of where they’re coming from.”

And a House Republican aide said Bush reiterated at a meeting with Members on Tuesday that he is sticking to his bottom line spending number and is a “no” on the Democrats’ $11 billion splitting-the-difference plan.

“They bottom line has not changed,” the aide said. “They will negotiate on potential priority shifts, but the number is still the number.”

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