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War Bill a Political Minefield

GI Bill Poses Challenge For GOP, Blue Dogs

House leaders in both parties will face a tough political calculus when the chamber takes up the $260 billion Senate-passed war spending bill.

With House action possible as early as this week, House Republicans have to decide whether to back popular but expensive GI benefits and other domestic spending — as did most of their Senate colleagues — or rally once more around President Bush and his promised veto.

Blue Dog Democrats have to decide whether to abandon efforts to abide by pay-as-you-go rules in the face of Senate opposition.

And Out of Iraq Caucus Democrats might have to choose soon whether to back a veto override on a war bill with add-ons, or vote to sustain the veto and back a president they oppose.

But the House Republican dilemma might be the most telling, as the GOP has been on the defensive after losing three special elections and enduring miserable poll numbers and poor fundraising. Party leaders have tried to rebrand the party as fiscally responsible in part by backing up veto threats on spending bills, but Members are becoming increasingly wary of sticking by Bush.

“Hopefully, the president will support the new GI bill and abandon his veto threat,” said a House Democratic leadership aide. “If he doesn’t, he will have found yet another way to make life miserable for House Republicans. Republicans would face a simple choice: Stand with the president or stand with our troops.”

Senate Republicans have already abandoned the president, as the domestic spending package passed by an overwhelming 75-22 margin, so the pressure is squarely on House GOP leaders to hold the line, as they did so often last year on critical spending bills.

Republican leaders, including House Minority Whip Roy Blunt (Mo.), have made calls for a “clean” supplemental and backing up the president’s veto threat on domestic add-ons, but Republicans are wary of headlines saying they support the war but are blocking veterans’ benefits.

The issue is so powerful that 32 House Republicans backed the Democrat-drafted, $52 billion GI bill despite the inclusion of an income tax surcharge on the wealthy. Now with the tax increase shelved by the Senate, Republicans will face an even tougher vote, something GOP aides acknowledge, despite the flaws they see in a bill that the White House warns would hurt retention of soldiers who might be enticed to leave the service sooner to take advantage of the new benefit.

“The reality is that you can support the troops and have a problem with this bill,” a House GOP leadership aide said. “The Democrats may believe that the politics are on their side on this one, but the realities of the policies in the supplemental are a lot more complicated.”

House Democrats plan to tweak the Senate package and send it back, rather than take the Senate’s package wholesale, but details are sketchy.

“We’re not going to take up the Senate bill full of Senate pork and pass it when there is nothing in it for us,” a House Democratic aide said.

The move that would likely present the most difficult vote for Republicans would strip the spending added by the Senate, limiting the GOP’s ability to charge that the bill had turned into a bloated porkfest.

Democrats still say they hope Bush will sign what reaches his desk, with the calculus of a veto override murky at best, particularly in the House.

“We’d hope that some wavering Republicans who went home and celebrated Memorial Day with their constituents would reconsider their position and stand with the soldiers and support this bill,” said Nadeam Elshami, spokesman for Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

Even if many Republicans might be ready to bail on Bush and spend tens of billions of dollars on a beefed-up education entitlement for veterans, an expanded unemployment insurance entitlement and other tidbits, Democrats face internal problems of their own, given that most of them don’t want to vote for war funding at all and Blue Dogs don’t want a massive veterans entitlement that isn’t offset.

“One of the major questions on the supplemental will be the Blue Dogs and whether they will stick to their PAYGO promise or fold their tents and cave like they have so many times before,” said a House Republican leadership aide. “At some point, don’t you think they ought to be held accountable for stridently saying one thing and repeatedly doing another?”

Several Blue Dogs said before the break that they had not yet decided how they would react.

Scores of the most liberal Democrats, meanwhile, have vowed not to support any more funding for the occupation of Iraq without timelines for withdrawal.

How many of those Members might be enticed to vote for a veto override is an open question, and one they have not yet had to face.

“I don’t see how we get a veto override vote in the House on war funding,” said a House Democratic aide, pointing to the Out of Iraq Caucus.

Time is working against the Democrats, as furlough notices will start going out to civilian Defense employees within weeks, ratcheting up the pressure for a deal.

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