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Road Map: Defense Bill Allows Obama to Start Troop Surge

Congress is poised to quickly clear tens of billions of dollars in war funding for Afghanistan that President Barack Obama intends to use to start his controversial surge — a fact that is largely lost amid the end-of-year scramble to keep the government running.

[IMGCAP(1)]Funding for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq is included in the Defense appropriations bill this year. The Defense bill likely will be wrapped into a huge omnibus spending measure, a technique Congress uses when it needs to quickly clear a huge backlog of unfinished appropriations work.

And because the Defense spending bill does not limit troop levels, Obama can use the money to send more troops to Afghanistan. By the time the money runs out this spring, many of the new troops will already be in place when Obama asks for another $30 billion or so.

While some Democrats have pointed to the spring vote as the key vote for or against the surge, some liberal Democrats intend to make a stand on the issue now, including Congressional Progressive Caucus Co-Chairman Raúl Grijalva (Ariz.). Grijalva spokesman Adam Sarvana said the Congressman plans to vote against the omnibus and rally opposition to the war funding in it.

It’s not clear how big of a problem the nascent progressive revolt will be; just 23 House Democrats voted against the Defense spending bill in July.

“There were also a lot of Members who wanted to give Obama a chance to lay out a better course and who are not likely to continue necessarily to give him the benefit of the doubt,— said Darcy Burner, executive director of the American Progressive Caucus Policy Foundation, a policy group allied with the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

Nevertheless, leadership is considering a legislative maneuver that would split the Defense bill into a separate vote on the House floor as they try to wrap up a catch-all year-end omnibus spending bill. House liberals could then vote for the domestic spending items they support, and Republicans could help carry the Defense spending.

Of course, there is a lot more left on the table besides keeping the wars going and the lights on in government offices. A whole host of “must-pass— year-end items are vying for attention, with some more critical than others.

That includes an extension of current estate tax rates, extensions of portions of the USA PATRIOT Act, extensions of various business tax breaks and a “doc fix— that would prevent a 21 percent cut in Medicare doctor pay. Most of the items have already passed the House but face an uncertain future with the Senate consumed by the health care debate.

“We’ve left a lot of packages on the doorstep of the Senate,— said a House Democratic leadership aide. “The House will have its work done hopefully in time for Christmas, while the Senate waits until Santa comes.—

The aide said the House is prepared to come back into session if need be to finish up legislation after Christmas, but doesn’t think that will be necessary.

Democrats are also trying to hammer out a jobs package full of goodies expected to top $200 billion for items such as roads, bridges and aid to states.

That package could pass in pieces, with some being attached to the omnibus and other parts waiting for early next year. Aides say they are focused on first passing extensions of existing safety net benefits such as food stamps, unemployment insurance and health care subsidies for the unemployed, but haven’t given up entirely on attaching larger items before Christmas.

The president today is expected to outline his proposal for a jobs package paid for in part with leftover money in the Troubled Asset Relief Program.

The House, as it waits for the Senate, is also scheduled to finish its financial reform overhaul this week.

Congress also needs to increase the debt limit. Key Democratic Senators are threatening to block a vote unless Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) agrees to a new deficit-cutting commission, an idea she has opposed.

Meanwhile, Pelosi is demanding that the Senate pass statutory pay-as-you-go deficit-cutting budget rules — an idea some in the Senate have resisted — as part of a year-end package of legislation.

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