Senate Turns to Iraq Showdown

Vote Could Slip Past Easter Break

Posted March 23, 2007 at 6:32pm

Senate Republicans say they are close to having the votes to strike a troop withdrawal timetable from the emergency spending bill, but Democrats asserted late last week that the eventual conference report that goes to the president will include language to bring troops home from Iraq.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is expected to allow Republicans to offer a motion to strike the Iraq withdrawal language from the supplemental spending bill, which could occur as soon as this week.

But Senate Democrats appeared unconcerned about whether the supplemental passes the chamber before they leave for the Easter recess at the end of the week, given that the Pentagon has said it does not need the money immediately.

“The secretary of Defense said we’d have until the end of April. So we have some time,” said Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), who sits on the Appropriations Committee. “But we’re going to try to pass it as quickly as we can.”

Republicans, concerned about appearing to block funding for the troops, have downplayed any talk of filibustering the bill, even as they say they will insist on a vote to strike the Iraq resolution from the bill.

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) indicated Thursday that Republicans would let the bill go to a final vote — and would be amenable to voting for a cloture motion to limit debate, as long as they get a vote on their amendment to strike the timetable for withdrawal from Iraq.

“It would be required for us to support cloture on the overall bill,” he said.

Minority Whip Trent Lott (R-Miss.) said, “I don’t think it’d be wise to drag it out.”

Reid expressed doubt that the Republicans would again have the votes to take down the resolution and indicated he would allow a vote on the amendment to strike the language. “If they’ve got the votes to do that, then let them” vote, he said Thursday.

Even Lott appeared uncertain of the outcome of such a vote, saying, “We [had the votes] last week. We’ll try again.”

But at least one Democrat whom Reid hoped to keep in the fold — Sen. Ben Nelson (Neb.) — appeared likely to vote with Republicans if they move to strike the timetable provisions from the bill.

Nelson, a moderate Democrat who recently voted with Republicans in opposition to a binding Iraq withdrawal resolution, said his position on the war remains the same: “Benchmarks, yes, timelines, no.”

Nelson said Friday he “would look very carefully” at any GOP proposal to remove a date certain from the spending bill. An aide to Nelson said the Senator supported the supplemental during Thursday’s Appropriations Committee markup because leaders had agreed to include his proposal to create benchmarks for the Iraqi government and a Department of Defense reporting requirement. But the aide acknowledged that Nelson likely would vote to eliminate the timelines should the GOP, as expected, move to strike them from the bill.

Additionally, Sen. Norm Coleman (Minn.), one of the GOP’s most threatened incumbents in 2008, said he would vote with his party to delete Democratic language setting a timeline to withdraw troops from Iraq.

“Our side has been very clear,” Coleman said. “We’re not for setting a date.”

Coleman added that while he would oppose any language calling for a set withdrawal date, he doesn’t believe Republicans would seek to filibuster the spending measure. “There needs to be a supplemental,” Coleman said.

GOP aides said it appears likely that Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.) will continue to side with the majority of Democrats in favor of the language. But with Sen. Joe Lieberman (ID-Conn.) voting with Republicans, it appears at this point Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is close to having enough votes to cut the language.

But even if the withdrawal language is eliminated from the final version of the Senate bill, Reid and other Democratic leaders are prepared to force a veto showdown with the White House over the issue. Aides vowed Friday that the final bill sent to President Bush would include some form of Iraq withdrawal language.

Senate Democratic leaders are optimistic “that at the end of the day that … Iraq language either from the House or the Senate will be in the conference report,” said Reid spokesman Jim Manley.

Senate Republicans this week also will step up their rhetorical attacks on the domestic spending provisions included in the bill.

As passed by the Appropriations Committee last week, the bill includes dozens of non-war related provisions, adding billions to the cost of the supplemental.

Earmarks in the bill include $2 million for the University of Vermont for a new “Educational Excellence Program”; $22.7 million for geothermal research; $13 million for mine safety activities; $25 million for construction projects at the Capitol; $500,000 for the Physical Oceanographic Real-Time System ship navigation program; $100 million for the cities of Denver and St Paul, Minn., for the 2008 presidential conventions; $25 million for school drug prevention programs; $640 million for low-income heating assistance; and $75 million to upgrade the Farm Service Agency’s data processing center in Kansas City, Mo.

The bill also includes billions in farm disaster relief and projects aimed at Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas for recovery from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Pandemic flu spending also gets a major funding increase of more than $932 million, including programs to test birds killed by hunters.

In addition to the funding provided by the bill, the Senate measure also would authorize additional spending for which the total costs are unclear. For instance, the bill would authorize the Department of Health and Human Services to fund a grant program in Mississippi administered by the Delta Health Initiative, while a separate section would exempt employees at the National Energy Technologies Laboratory from being included in the White House’s “competitive sourcing” privatization program. The bill also would prohibit the federal government from initiating a Bonneville Power Authority rate case prior to April 1, 2008, and requires proceeds from the sale of ornaments in the Senate gift shop during the 2006-07 holiday season be used to fund the Senate Employee Child Care Center.

Moreover, Democrats have conditioned 50 percent of Iraqi reconstruction funds on the Iraqi government’s ability to conduct local elections, share oil revenues with all Iraqis, and use their own money to pay for reconstruction efforts, among other things.

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), who chairs the Appropriations subcommittee on State and foreign operations, is behind the conditions on Iraqi reconstruction funds — something that never has been done, primarily because of fierce White House resistance.

The bill states that 50 percent of funding for Iraqi reconstruction must be withheld until the president certifies that the Iraqi government has begun spending $10 billion of its own money for reconstruction and delivery of essential services; has adopted a law to share Iraqi revenues equitably among all religious and ethnic factions; has approved a rule governing local and provincial elections; and reformed current laws regarding people associated with former dictator Saddam Hussein to reintegrate them into the system.

Erin P. Billings contributed to this report.