Could Pushing Supplemental Expose Internal GOP Rifts?

Posted September 29, 2003 at 7:08pm

Democrats are having a field day watching President Bush’s poll numbers plummet as they continue to question the specifics of his $87 billion supplemental spending request for the U.S. occupation of Iraq and pound his overall handling of the nation’s post-war reconstruction.

So it’s no wonder that Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) is looking to make the issue yesterday’s news by the end of this week.

But by pushing the supplemental through the Senate over the objections of Democrats and some Republicans, Frist could prematurely call attention to internal GOP rifts over Bush’s handling of the war and the reconstruction price tag.

Frist also is in danger of handing Senate Democrats desperately needed victories and, they’ll likely say, vindication for their criticism of enacting massive tax cuts in wartime.

Indeed, the biggest dilemma facing Senate Republican leaders this week is how to keep their rank and file from heeding the siren song of fiscal conservativism — a prospect that could lead to momentum for Democratic-backed amendments to pay for the supplemental by rolling back some tax cuts for the very wealthy or giving the money to Iraq only in loan form.

Republican operatives concede that there are inherent dangers in bringing the bill up this week, because so many of their own might buck the White House’s desire to tack the cost of the supplemental onto the already ballooning deficit, set to rise to $500 billion next year.

“Where we’ll run into floor challenges is the issue of loans versus grants and the issue of offsets in general,” said one senior Senate GOP aide. “I think we have some problems, but I can’t tell you how big they are.”

Already a few GOP Senators have expressed interest in a proposal from Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.) to take the $87 billion out of planned tax cuts targeted to millionaires. His amendment, which will likely be offered on the floor later this week, would cut the current 10-year $690 billion tax cut going to Americans who make $360,000 and more to a mere $600 billion over the next decade.

“I certainly am not averse to considering the proposal,” said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who opposed Bush’s latest $350 billion tax rollback. “The fact is I voted against [the tax cut] to start with. Those cuts didn’t get passed on my vote.”

Sens. Lincoln Chafee (R-R.I.) and Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) may also be potential GOP votes for Biden’s proposal, and noted deficit hawk Sen. George Voinovich (R-Ohio) will also be on the watch list.

Snowe is still undecided about whether to roll back tax cuts she opposed in the first place, said her spokeswoman, Elizabeth Wenk.

“Obviously, she voted against the tax cut with [the unknown costs of the Iraq war] being the exact point in her mind,” said Wenk, who noted Snowe may simply come up with her own plan for offsetting the costs of the supplemental.

Snowe is chiefly concerned about whether Bush is low-balling the price of reconstruction (Bush originally asked Congress for $79 billion in April for the war efforts).

“She wants to make sure this is the number that gets us through next year,” said Wenk, “so we don’t have to do another supplemental.”

As for Democrats, a Biden spokesman said the majority of the Senate Democratic Caucus supports the proposal, but it’s still unclear how many votes Biden will draw.

Frist’s primary problem, however, is likely to be Republicans defecting to loan proposals. Most notably, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) has said she’ll offer an amendment to force Iraqis to pay American taxpayers back for infrastructure improvements, such as the nation’s electric grid, which were already in disrepair before the war and were not damaged by American bombs.

Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) also is expected today to offer an amendment in committee to require Iraqis to use future oil revenues to reimburse the United States.

Conservatives, such as Sens. Don Nickles (R-Okla.) and George Allen (R-Va.), also have indicated they are more inclined to approve the supplemental if it is doled out as a loan.

“He’s just trying to figure out how it could be a workable proposal,” said an Allen spokesman of his boss’ efforts.

Loan proponents are wrestling with the notion that saddling Iraq with more debt will only hamper U.S. efforts to get the Iraqi economy going. Of course, most Members who favor the loan proposal are doing so because saddling the United States with more debt is likely to hamper the recovery of an already sluggish U.S. economy.

Meanwhile, some Senate Democrats — such as Senate Appropriations ranking member Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) — are still fuming over the accelerated pace of Senate action on the supplemental and are plotting ways to keep their concerns over the $20 billion in reconstruction funds as Topic A.

One Democratic aide to an Appropriations member noted that the volume of amendments Democrats plan to offer during today’s committee markup could make for a very late night, and may even push continued consideration into Wednesday. And that could seriously complicate Frist’s efforts to get the bill on floor by Tuesday evening and done by Friday.

But Frist wasn’t necessarily expecting smooth sailing this week, and one top Republican aide was quick to brandish an old leadership standby last week: “cancel the recess.”

“There’s a possibility we could go into Saturday, and even cancel the recess,” said the aide of the Senate’s plans to recess the week of Oct. 6. “Frist seems pretty determined to get this done, and that at least means late nights.”

While the Senate tries to sweep some of the Iraq controversy under the table this week, GOP leaders in the House are giving their Members a little more time to evaluate the supplemental. The House Appropriations subcommittee on foreign operations, export financing and related programs and the subcommittee on Defense plan to hold hearings today on the request. Meanwhile, the House Armed Services Committee will mark up a resolution demanding more information from the Joint Chiefs of Staff on the “strategic lessons learned” in Operation Iraqi Freedom as well as documents on the reconstruction and security of post-war Iraq.

The House could take up the supplemental as early as the week of Oct. 6, having stubbornly stuck by their decision to work a short week while the Senate skips town.

As for the House floor agenda this week, it will again be dominated by suspension calendar bills, the more interesting of which include measures honoring recently departed entertainment legends, such as Bob Hope (who’ll get a post office named for him and a resolution honoring his life) and Johnny Cash (just a resolution), as well as lesser-known community celebrities, like the first black city councilman in Orlando, Fla., Arthur “Pappy” Kennedy (a post office).

However, House Republican leaders do hope their week will include more substantive issues. They’re ready to act on the conference reports for the fiscal 2004 military construction and energy and water spending bills, if the conference committee work is finished this week.

If the Senate follows suit, that will leave just eight stand-alone appropriations bills that have to be wrapped into an omnibus spending bill at the end of this session.