On Iraq Funds, Democrats Face a ‘Bridge’ Too Far

Posted November 12, 2007 at 6:35pm

Having quietly ensured last week that troops in Iraq will continue to be funded for at least the next few months, House and Senate Democrats feel free to use their final week before Thanksgiving to try yet again to attach a withdrawal timetable to any specific war funding. [IMGCAP(1)]

By giving President Bush a $460 billion Defense spending bill that allows him to divert funding from regular Pentagon accounts to fund the war, Democrats believe they’ve insulated themselves from accusations that they are withholding money from soldiers “in harm’s way,” without having to explicitly vote for a “blank check.”

Though the votes this week on a $50 billion stopgap “bridge” fund for the Iraq War tied to a Dec. 15, 2008, withdrawal date will end up being largely symbolic — considering the bill either will be filibustered or vetoed — Democrats say the gambit will keep pressure on Republicans while showing their base that they continue to fight to end the war.

“Giving him the Defense bill is not a blank check,” said a House Democratic aide. “It’s making him do things he doesn’t want to do. He doesn’t want any restrictions. He doesn’t want to have to wait for his supplemental. The question is how do we put the maximum amount of pressure on the Republicans and the White House to change position on Iraq?”

Indeed, the latest Democratic war funding strategy appears to be one in which they provide funding for the war through back channels like the Defense bill, but withhold explicit funding until the White House caves to their demands.

“If the president believes that he still needs a supplemental [war spending bill], then he must be willing to change course in Iraq, because the days of blank checks are over,” said one Senate Democratic leadership aide.

It’s a risky strategy that may only last until the Defense Department comes begging for more money after reallocating the $460 billion they’ve been given. Unless a critical mass of Republicans develops a sudden willingness to defy the president, funding bills attached to withdrawal timetables won’t become law.

And that will leave Democrats early next year exactly where they were six months ago: facing a choice of providing funding with only fig-leaf restrictions — the proverbial “blank check” — or risking a delay in war funding and a public backlash over a partial shutdown of military operations caused by regular military accounts starting to dry up. At that point, the pressure on Democrats to provide supplemental spending will be intense, and Democratic leaders have repeatedly said they will provide funds for the troops while they are in the field.

In addition to the money currently in the pipeline for the Pentagon, Bush has asked for almost $200 billion in emergency supplemental spending for the war. The $50 billion “bridge” fund would pay for part of that.

House debate on the Iraq funding likely will mirror earlier debates — with narrow margins, liberals grumbling about giving Bush any more money but voting for the bill and some of the party’s small contingent of war hawks voting against it.

Republicans say they will hang tough against Democratic efforts to micromanage the war effort, and point to reports of reduced levels of violence in Iraq as a sign that President Bush’s “surge” strategy has worked and should continue.

The Out of Iraq Caucus had initially balked at the funding, asking for several days to go over the language. But most are expected to vote for the measure as long as it ties the funding to withdrawal of troops.

If the bill makes it through the House this week, Senate Republicans likely have the votes to filibuster. The question is whether they will raise that 60-vote hurdle to passage. Senate Republican aides indicated Monday that the decision had not yet been made on whether to block the measure from being sent to the president for his certain veto.

One Senate GOP leadership aide pointed out that regardless of what Senate Republicans decide to do, a “delay [in war funding] is going to happen one way or another” because of Democrats’ decision to recess for two weeks following the debate. So, filibuster or veto, the Congress would not get back to the issue until they return Dec. 3.

The Senate Democratic leadership aide said there is no indication yet of what Republicans plan to do but said Democrats envision two different scenarios.

“They filibuster and risk showing the American people that they have 100 percent bought into the president’s failed war strategy and see no need to change course,” said the aide. “Or they can do what they did this spring and take themselves out of the equation, and this will become a debate between Democrats and the president.”

During debate on a supplemental war spending bill earlier this year, Republicans declined to filibuster in order to get the bill vetoed more quickly. Eventually, Democrats dropped language from that bill that would have forced the president to begin drawing down troops in Iraq.

Of course, it looks like Republicans this week will be focused on the more universal message that Democrats can’t seem to get anything enacted — from regular appropriations to an alternative minimum tax fix to, of course, the bridge fund for Iraq.

“We’re going to talk about the fact that mismanagement has consequences,” said another Senate GOP leadership aide. “The lack of a game plan has just crippled Congress. The number of unfinished items we have to get through is daunting. I don’t know how they’re going to get this done.”

This aide said Democrats were not only leading Congress to a dreaded omnibus appropriations package but also were endangering tax filing season by not passing a patch to make sure the AMT — a tax intended for the wealthy — does not hit over 20 million middle-income Americans in the coming year.

“The AMT patch is going to be huge next week,” said the aide on Friday. “It’s a glaring symbol of their weakness on the tax issue.”

While the House has passed an AMT bill, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said last week he had no plans to bring it up this week. Democrats have argued that Republicans are agitating for a filibuster fight over whether or not to offset the cost of providing the tax break.

By not taking up AMT and focusing on the destined-to-fail bridge-fund debate, the Senate will have precious little time for dealing with the regular annual spending bills, only two of which have been sent to the president.

The Senate Democratic leadership aide said conference reports on a couple of spending bills could come up in that chamber if Reid can broker time agreements with Republicans. The likely appropriations bills to be brought up are the Transportation and Housing and Urban Development bill, and the Commerce, Justice and science measure.

Meanwhile, the stalled farm bill will act as a placeholder on the Senate floor.

And, depending on when President Bush decides to veto the Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education spending bill, the House could attempt an override this week or let Republicans sweat it out over Thanksgiving. Democrats will again point out Bush’s lotsa-guns-but-no-butter spending plans.

“This week the president will likely sign the Defense bill with a $39 billion increase and then turn around and veto the Labor-Health-Education bill for being $6 billion above last year because it’s too much investment in domestic priorities,” said Kirstin Brost, spokeswoman for House Appropriations Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.).