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Spending Bill Sparks Strategizing

Correction Appended

Democratic and Republican Senate leaders struggled Wednesday to break a deadlock over the supplemental war spending measure, despite predictions from both camps that lawmakers probably could not agree to a veto-proof bill before week’s end.

At press time, Democratic lawmakers emerged from behind closed doors, where they held a rare emergency caucus meeting called by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.).

Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said Democrats decided to roll the dice and see whether Republicans would give them enough votes this morning to adopt a domestic spending package that includes a new GI bill and extended unemployment benefits despite a presidential veto threat.

The prospects for passage of the domestic package appeared good, considering Republican lawmakers indicated earlier in the day that they did not want to filibuster for fear of further delaying funding for soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Pentagon has said it will run out of money by June 15.

If Republicans block the domestic spending bill, Durbin said Democrats might then attempt to vote only on the GI bill provisions. They also likely would try to get Republicans to agree to limit amendments. If Republicans spurn that deal, Durbin said, Democrats would have no qualms about leaving for the weeklong Memorial Day recess without having passed war funding.

“If we can’t get an agreement with Republicans to move through these votes, we’re not going to stay six or seven days to go through them,” Durbin said, referencing the time it would take to jump through procedural hoops.

Democrats continued to say that they hoped to finish both the supplemental and a budget resolution by tonight.

Questions remained about how the Senate might deal with the war funding portion of the bill. Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) put his leadership on notice that he would seek a vote on his bill to force a withdrawal from Iraq. The current language in the supplemental, which is likely to be stripped by Republicans, calls only for such a withdrawal.

Democrats expressed optimism about their ability to get the 60 votes necessary to beat back a filibuster on the domestic portion, noting that Democratic leaders already have trimmed provisions added during the Senate Appropriations Committee markup last week.

Republicans said they were more concerned about making sure they had 34 votes opposing the bill — the number needed to sustain a presidential veto threatened for the current bill. Republicans privately acknowledged that they were particularly nervous about voting against the veterans’ provisions in an election year that portends badly for their party.

Late Tuesday, Democrats stripped provisions from the supplemental bill with the blessing of Reid and Appropriations Chairman Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) to ensure that Republicans would not sink the measure by using Senate rules that prohibit policy-making on spending bills. New Jersey Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez made the motion on the floor to strip the provisions.

According to a list of the cuts, Reid and Byrd targeted high-profile areas such as immigration provisions as well as lesser-known sections, particularly a relatively small handful of earmarks.

Although several of those earmarks, including one involving a clean-coal technology project in Illinois backed by Durbin and Sen. Kit Bond (R-Mo.), had bipartisan support, Democratic leaders left largely untouched earmarks for Mississippi related to Hurricane Katrina.

Mississippi, which is the home state of Senate Appropriations ranking member Thad Cochran (R), would still receive more than $1.3 billion in earmarks, including $12.5 million to fight rising crime in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, $173.6 million for Army Corps of Engineers restoration projects, $397 million for the “Mississippi Homeowners Assistance Relocation Project” and $363 million for dune and barrier island restoration projects.

Democratic aides said Byrd and Reid decided to retain the bulk of the Katrina-related earmarks because of the needs in the region.

Negotiations over when to hold a budget resolution vote continued at press time. Senate Budget ranking member Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) acknowledged that while absences by Democratic presidential hopefuls Sens. Barack Obama (Ill.) and Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.), as well as the ailing Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) could complicate the timing of the vote, budget hawks won’t be able to kill the budget.

Gregg said he would not agree to a unanimous consent deal to simply pass the budget by a voice vote and that he would insist lawmakers be on record. “I think people ought to stand up and say whether they want to vote for the largest tax increase in history,” he said.

Correction: May 22, 2008

The article incorrectly quoted Senate Budget ranking member Judd Gregg (R-N.H.). He said, “I think people ought to stand up and say whether they want to vote for the largest tax increase in history.”

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