All Sides Seek Imprint on Iraq Bill

Posted May 2, 2008 at 5:28pm

Fighting against time in their quest to approve a supplemental war spending bill before the Memorial Day recess, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) are finding that the best-laid plans often go awry, especially when appropriators are involved.

As Reid and Pelosi try to produce a lean, leadership-engineered measure designed for a presidential signature, they have found themselves running headfirst into an unruly pack of rank-and-file lawmakers agitating to approve tens of billions of dollars in additional money for domestic priorities.

“I will not vote for that unless there is domestic spending,” warned Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio), who sits on the House Appropriations panel.

Kaptur complained that the House leadership has “arteriosclerosis” for not moving more aggressively on measures to aid distressed areas, including Ohio. She added that leadership, by keeping the supplemental too close to the vest and not going through a committee markup, has failed to engage the broader membership.

“It does disenfranchise the voice of people who don’t come from leadership locations,” she said.

For Members like Kaptur, the calculus is simple: They don’t want to have to explain why they voted for billions to rebuild Baghdad while their residents are getting evicted from their homes and losing their jobs. They see the war bill as the last, best chance to leverage spending on everything from new road projects to summer jobs.

Those demands, say aides familiar with the leadership’s thinking, imperil the leaders’ goal of crafting a compact set of add-ons to the war funding that could be signed by the president.

“The general consensus appears to be to try to work something out with the administration to avoid the veto fight,” said one senior Senate Democratic aide. “We’re trying to make it just palatable enough for the White House to sign.”

President Bush’s threat to veto any supplemental that adds extraneous domestic funding has made Reid and Pelosi’s balancing act difficult.

“The president’s draw-a-line-in-the-sand veto threat that ignores the economic challenges we face … doesn’t make it easy for those of us in Congress to deal with the issues the American people care about,” Senate Democratic Conference Secretary Patty Murray (Wash.) said.

The competing pressures prompted Reid and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) last week to push back the timetables for the measure, with Reid hinting that it might not get done before Congress leaves town for a one-week recess on May 23. Hoyer said the bill might not come to the House floor this week as previously expected, and Pelosi acknowledged that leaders have not agreed on what to include.

“What people are missing when they are looking at all of this is that this is an incredibly difficult exercise,” said a senior House Democratic aide. “We barely passed this [bill] last year, with 218 votes. There is no wiggle room here in an attempt to get something enacted.”

The hard-nosed legislative tactics are not about a power grab for any one faction or leadership, the aide said. “It’s designed to get something enacted so we can get this thing behind us.”

With the House concerned that the Senate will make them look like they crafted too Spartan a deal, Reid is faced with a decision on whether to advise Senate Appropriations Chairman Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) to call off his planned markup of a supplemental this week. Reid could also simply ignore the committee’s mark when the bill is sent over from the House or use the Senate mark as an amendment to the House bill on the floor.

“The fundamental problem is whether [the markup] upsets the ongoing dynamic where the House and Senate are trying to reach a common accord,” said the senior Senate Democratic aide.

Republicans agreed that a Senate Appropriations markup could cause a deal to collapse.

“It would probably destroy whatever delicate balance House and Senate leaders come up with,” said one senior Senate GOP aide.

Although Byrd announced Wednesday that he intended to mark up a war funding bill this week “that also addresses some of our critically needed priorities on American soil,” Reid put a damper on that plan.

“It’s easy to cancel a markup,” Reid told reporters Thursday.

A hearing schedule released by the committee on Friday did not include the markup.

Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) backed up Reid, saying the decision on whether to hold a markup has “gone back and forth,” and he rejected the notion that without a markup the Senate would be giving the House more influence over the final version.

“The reason we’re meeting with the House Democrats is to make sure that some of the fundamental concerns that we have about the contents of the bill are respected,” Durbin said.

But Senate Appropriations member Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) said he favored a committee markup. “I’d like to maintain a Senate voice,” he said.

However, another Senate Democratic source noted that the process by which the House will send the bill over to the Senate leaves Reid several options for sidestepping the Appropriations Committee, if he so chooses.

Because the measure likely will arrive in the Senate as a “message” to be agreed to or slightly modified, it will not automatically be sent to the Appropriations Committee, the aide said. Keeping the measure “at the desk” on the Senate floor gives Reid the opportunity to control how many and which amendments are offered, the aide said.

Additionally, because the message is expected to come over as three separate amendments, adding an Appropriations Committee mark would be difficult.

To smooth passage in the House and allow anti-war Democrats to vote against funding the war, that chamber is likely to vote on the bill as three different pieces — war funding of around $170 billion, language calling on the administration to begin bringing troops home, and a domestic spending component that could include extended unemployment benefits, energy tax credits and a new GI bill for veterans’ education.

While Senate Republicans have the ability to filibuster the measure over additional domestic funding, restrictions on troop deployments or other issues, they are unlikely to do so, said the senior Senate GOP aide. Rather, they expect to adopt a strategy much like that of last year, in which they allowed a supplemental that was objectionable to move quickly to the president for his veto.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) explained last year’s strategy by saying it was meant to get the veto over with so that another “clean” war bill could be sent to the White House.

Republicans will back up the president in any veto override vote, the aide explained.

“If it’s going to be vetoed, that veto will be sustained,” the aide said.

But the aide questioned whether Democratic leaders were actually trying to get a bill signed by the president, considering they have been talking about including contentious energy tax credits that are offset by tax increases elsewhere. Those provisions would probably draw a veto on their own, the aide said.

Republicans hinted that they — and the White House — might be amenable to including the GI bill, provided its costs were contained, as well as an extension of unemployment benefits.

Meanwhile, House Republicans are infuriated that Obey has largely frozen them out of talks over add-ons to the bill.

Appropriations ranking member Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.), whose relationship with Obey appears to have become increasingly strained, said it is “unacceptable” that a potentially $200 billion supplemental might be written without the input of Members representing millions of Americans.

Lewis warned that if Democrats move the bill without at least holding a markup, the practice would likely spill over onto other bills and diminish the institution. “You might as well forget about the Appropriations Committee,” he said. “The institution of our committee is about to be destroyed.”

Lewis said Obey told him at a brief meeting a few weeks ago, “Jerry, I can tell you this, the leadership is not going to be writing my bill for me.”

But last week, Lewis said he told Obey that that’s exactly what seems to be happening.

Lewis said Obey offered to let Republican appropriations staff work with Democrats on the military portion of the bill, but said many of the domestic pieces were off-limits.

Lewis said he wasn’t willing to go along.

“Why would I do that?”