Blue Dogs Bark at Spending in Supplemental

Posted May 6, 2008 at 6:52pm

House Democratic leaders’ plan for a nearly $250 billion war supplemental Tuesday ran into resistance from some Blue Dog Democrats, who opposed including a $51 billion GI bill entitlement for veterans as a violation of pay-as-you-go budget rules.

Several Blue Dogs told Roll Call that they would not vote for the spending package unless the GI bill costs were offset. Blue Dogs have repeatedly had their attempts to uphold PAYGO principles shredded in recent months, including bills extending alternative minimum tax relief and the first stimulus package, which added hundreds of billions of dollars to the deficit.

“How does it help veterans to borrow Chinese yuan to pay for veterans’ benefits?” asked Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.). “This is the dawn of a huge entitlement program that we haven’t funded. It’s irresponsible. The argument we’re getting is just because the Senate is going to be irresponsible, we should beat them to the punch.”

Cooper also warned against the continuing erosion of PAYGO.

“You start serving dessert, and everybody wants a slice,” he said.

Rank-and-file lawmakers, meanwhile, grumbled that many of the stimulus items that they had sought were excluded from the war supplemental slated to come to the floor Thursday, including enhanced food stamp benefits, aid to states, transportation spending, summer jobs and much more. House Democrats have angered Republicans by bypassing the committee process, leading to procedural protest maneuvers by the GOP on the House floor.

Appropriations Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.) said Democrats had said no to 110 requests for spending add-ons, many of which he supports, because they were trying to come up with a bill that would be signed by Bush, who has set a firm spending limit on the war-spending measure.

Obey said it would have been a waste of the House’s time to put together a package of veto bait, and he acknowledged that there was a concern that including other measures would shift the focus from the merits of that spending and onto Democrats holding war funding hostage.

“There is no pork in this bill,” Obey contended.

The war bill will cost nearly $250 billion with the GI education provisions included, alongside an $11 billion boost to unemployment insurance benefits and a $184 billion package of war and hurricane relief largely requested by President Bush. A little more than $3 billion was shifted from war spending to other priorities, including emergency foreign food relief and base closing costs.

Members of the Out of Iraq Caucus, meanwhile, said they were pleased that they would be given separate votes on a timetable for withdrawal, war spending and an economic package, but continued to be frustrated at the unwillingness of a majority of Members to cut off funding.

“If I had the ability to end this war, stop the funding, I would,” Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) said. “Am I frustrated that the war is still going on? Absolutely.”

Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) expressed disappointment that the bill would fund the war halfway through next year, while money for domestic priorities, such as food stamps and infrastructure spending, were left out.

“We think food stamps and infrastructure should be in there,” she said. “People are hungry.”

Lee blamed the war for hurting the economy. “I’m just sorry that we can’t end this and begin to bring our troops home. I think we need to do what the American people sent us here to do. End it.”

In deference to Out of Iraq members, Obey outlined an amendment that would include a timetable for withdrawal starting immediately and ending in December 2009 alongside other war restrictions. But that amendment is expected to be just for show and stripped out before the bill is sent to the president.

One piece that could survive, however, is a requirement that Iraqis pay for more of their own reconstruction given the profits they are making from skyrocketing oil prices.

Obey acknowledged that while a majority of Democrats favor ending funding for the war, a majority of the Congress does not. Obey said that he had a responsibility to the institution to let the House work its will.

The Appropriations chairman added that he is already working on another supplemental focused on domestic spending, but that package, expected in the coming months, appears likely to draw a veto threat.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said the GI bill should be paid for “long term,” explaining that it would be written in a way that would avoid a technical violation of the House’s PAYGO rule. But that clearly wasn’t good enough for some conservatives.

“It violates the principles that we believe in,” said Rep. Allen Boyd (D-Fla.), a Blue Dog co-chairman. “You ought to find the offsets. … I’m not going to vote for a mandatory program that’s not offset.”

Blue Dogs were discussing Tuesday night whether to vote against the rule on the war bill, which would be an extreme step and challenge to the leadership. Rep. Mike Ross (D-Ark.), another Blue Dog co-chairman, said they want a separate GI bill that is paid for.

On the GOP side, House Minority Whip Roy Blunt (Mo.) attacked Democrats for diverting funds from the war effort to “finance their reckless spending bonanza” while “trying to play armchair quarterback to direct our generals on the ground.”

Senate Democratic reaction to the House bill was mixed given that their leadership has not yet decided how or whether to alter the measure when it comes to the Senate floor, possibly next week. But Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has apparently decided to keep his options open by permitting a Senate Appropriations Committee markup to go forward on Thursday afternoon.

“Sen. [Robert] Byrd [D-W.Va.] is well within his rights to have the Senate Appropriations Committee express its views on the House’s supplemental amendments,” Reid spokesman Jim Manley said. “We hope Senate Republicans permit the Senate Appropriations Committee’s amendments to receive votes on the Senate floor when we turn to the supplemental.”

Though the committee sent out an official notice of the markup, the meeting appeared to be in limbo as several Senate appropriators noted that it might not happen as planned.

“It’s scheduled but this is the Senate. It could get canceled,” Senate Democratic Conference Secretary Patty Murray (Wash.) said.

Murray indicated that the tight time frame for getting a bill passed by Memorial Day could force the chamber to try and move more expeditiously, but that the current plan was to hold a markup.

Even if the markup occurs, the committee product has no guarantee that it will be used as a substitute amendment for the House provisions.

Several Democratic aides said it remains to be seen whether Members of the panel will curb themselves in terms of adding domestic priorities — as the House did — or throw cash at everything from wildfire suppression to crumbling infrastructure. That question was central to leadership’s original desire to sidestep the Senate Appropriations panel during this process.

And aides in both parties warned that if the committee adds much more than what the House has produced, Republicans would likely balk and prevent those provisions from garnering the 60 votes needed to overcome a filibuster.

However, many members of the panel were already showing signs of restraint.

“Given seven years of the Bush administration, we have a long list of priorities that are in need of getting done,” Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) said. “But we’re going to have to work through this in a way that gets the bill signed, and we understand that. It’s a matter of working with the House and having a responsibility to complete legislation.”

Meanwhile, Senate Republicans said they could probably live with the extension of unemployment benefits included in the House bill, but suggested that they expect the president to veto the bill if the GI bill provisions are not altered. Republicans continued to insist that the GI bill be pared down to reduce the cost and address questions about whether military retention would suffer.

But Democrats said they have no reason to tinker with the bill sponsored by Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.) and backed by 57 Senators, including 10 Republicans.

Webb said he believes he would be able to get 60 votes for the measure when it hits the Senate floor, and he practically dared the president to veto it.

“If the president really believes that these people are the next ‘Greatest Generation,’ then we ought to give them the same thing the World War II generation got,” Webb said.