Nelson May Hold Key to Conference

Posted April 16, 2007 at 6:47pm

With Democratic Congressional leaders and the White House already telegraphing their next three chess moves to each other, it would appear there will be no drama this week when a House-Senate conference committee meets to craft a $120 billion-plus emergency Iraq War spending bill.

But appearances can be deceiving. [IMGCAP(1)]

A presidential veto may be a strong probability, as is an eventual final product that stops short of setting a timeline for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq. But it remains to be seen how both Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) will again corral their faithful — and not-so-faithful — rank and file into first supporting some sort of compromise timetable for withdrawal from Iraq, particularly since both leaders appeared to have maxed out their ability to twist arms just passing their own versions.

Congressional experts have pondered for weeks how Pelosi will get her already unhappy liberals to vote for the Senate’s language, which unlike the House does not include a compulsory date certain for withdrawal. Others have wondered whether Reid will be able to give any ground in conference given the narrow 51-vote margin of victory in the Senate.

The answer for Reid likely is a big, fat “no,” if Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) has anything to say about it.

And he will, because Reid put Nelson — along with all the other members of the Senate Appropriations Committee — on the conference committee. That means Nelson will be able to prevent the bill from even emerging from conference if he doesn’t like the outcome. (Conference committee rules dictate that a majority of each chamber must sign off on the bill, and Senate Democrats have only a one-seat majority of conferees.)

“It’s not going to be easy,” conceded one senior Senate Democratic leadership aide of conference negotiations, which could begin as early as today but may be delayed until Wednesday because of inclement weather in the Northeast.

And just because Nelson voted for the Senate bill initially does not mean he is wedded to the Senate’s March 31, 2008, “goal” of ending U.S. combat missions in Iraq. Quite the opposite, said Nelson spokesman David DiMartino.

“Sen. Nelson will be working to get the dates removed,” said DiMartino, who added that Nelson’s vote right now is “completely in the undecided category” on whether to back a conference report that has the Senate language.

Still, DiMartino said the Senator definitely would “prefer the Senate language over the House language, but he’d prefer no language at all.”

Nelson himself laid down his marker in an Omaha World-Herald article published Monday, saying that if House leaders insist on their withdrawal timetable, “They’ll lose.”

Despite having — purposely or not — given Nelson a trump card in conference negotiations, Reid was confident Monday that President Bush would have something sufficiently objectionable to veto.

“The president is not going to get a bill with nothing on it,” Reid said at a press conference. “It would be wrong for the legislative branch to capitulate to this wrong-headed policy.”

Still, Reid said he and Pelosi, when they meet with Bush at the White House on Wednesday, would not “be telling him specifically what we’ll send him.” That’s likely because a deal between the two chambers isn’t expected to be worked out before next week.

Asked what he expects to accomplish at the White House meeting — considering that both Bush and Democratic leaders have expressed an unwillingness to negotiate — Reid said his hopes spring eternal.

“Miracles never cease. Maybe the president will wake up one day and realize he’s been wrong,” Reid said.

The House situation also is delicate for Pelosi, considering it was a stretch to get her liberal wing to support funding the war until Aug. 31, 2008, the House bill’s pullout date. But a House Democratic leadership staffer said the White House’s pummeling of Congress for taking so long to get a bill to the president — a charge Democrats vehemently dispute — might give wavering Democrats a reason to compromise.

The staffer acknowledged Monday the difficulty of crafting language that would secure support in both chambers but said that the imperative of getting a bill to the president soon will help secure the votes for whatever emerges out of conference.

“People realize that we have to get a bill to the president,” the staffer said, adding that the goal is to clear the legislation by the end of the month, but the details remain uncertain.

Still, it appeared Monday that something far closer to the Senate language will be adopted, given Nelson’s position. Plus, Pelosi is likely to ask House liberals to hold their noses and vote for whatever comes out of conference committee, especially because Bush has vowed to veto the bill regardless.

Adding to the complications of the war spending bill conference, Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.), who still is recuperating from a brain hemorrhage in December, has been named a conferee by virtue of his seat on the Appropriations panel.

Johnson is expected to give Chairman Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) the ability to vote for him by proxy. Johnson does not have that luxury, though, when it comes to signing off on the conference report. For that, the bill will have to be taken to the rehabilitation hospital where Johnson is recovering for his signature.

A Johnson spokeswoman said Johnson supports the Senate version of the bill.

John Stanton contributed to this report.