Senate Appropriations Committee Sends Supplemental to Floor

Posted May 15, 2008 at 4:56pm

Despite its slim chance for surviving on the Senate floor, the Appropriations Committee on Thursday afternoon approved its own ambitious supplemental war funding bill.

The Senate’s bill contained a domestic spending component far larger than a similar measure that was simultaneously taking a nose dive on the House floor.

In an ambush on Democratic leadership, House Republicans killed the war funding by voting “present” and sent the bill to the Senate without extending money for troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The stunning defeat of the House bill left the Senate’s planned floor debate next week uncertain, but a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said the chamber would still consider the measure before the Memorial Day recess, which is set to begin Friday, May 23.

Largely unaware of the bill’s fate on the House floor, Senate appropriators went ahead with their plan to more than a billion to the nearly $200 billion bill to fund the Iraq War through spring 2009.

The measure also would provide billions more for domestic programs, including science research, veterans education, unemployment benefits, hurricane relief and grants to local law enforcement agencies.

Appropriations Chairman Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) said he had attempted to avoid “controversy” by excluding earmarks “except those requested by the president or provided in response to [2005’s] Hurricane Katrina.”

But in the next breath, he identified what Republicans and the White House say is one of their chief objections to the bill: in Byrd’s words, “$9.1 billion above the president’s request.” But by the end of the markup, Democrats had added even more funds.

Still, Byrd gave an impassioned, if not rambling, speech about the necessity of the Senate add-ons.

“I am frankly amazed that there is no evidence of the president asking for funding to invest in America or to help Americans deal with a faltering economy,” said Byrd, the ailing chairman who has been plagued recently by talk among Senate Democratic leaders of removing him from atop the panel.

In fact, Byrd’s decision to hold a markup of the supplemental, against his leadership’s wishes, has been widely interpreted as an attempt to show that his advanced age – he is 90 – and recent health problems have not affected his ability to perform as chairman.

Senate Democrats had hoped to sidestep the committee process in the hopes of keeping the bill’s domestic spending focused narrowly on unemployment benefits and a new veterans education initiative.

However, Byrd’s performance showed his age, with his inability to hear other Senators appearing to be a hindrance to his understanding what was happening during the proceedings.

During a voice vote on one amendment, Byrd urged his colleagues, whose voices could already be heard at the back of the room, to “Let me hear you. Let the chair hear you.”

Byrd also appeared to have some trouble with the quick pace of the markup and had to be reminded by other panel members to vote on some amendments. In other instances, he appeared to have command of the three-and-a-half hour markup.

Though Byrd primarily read from a printed statement, he went off-script at one point, saying the president’s charge that the Congress is holding troop funding hostage by adding domestic spending was “horse blank. … I’m sure you can guess what the blank is.”

The committee’s domestic proposal has little chance of garnering the 60 votes needed to overcome a filibuster because of GOP objections over its size, several Senators said.

The Senate will vote on the bill as three separate parts: war funding, restrictions on war strategy and the domestic component.

Appropriations ranking member Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) criticized the measure as bloated and certain to draw President Bush’s veto.

“I think the chairman’s mark includes a number of costly and controversial authorizing matters that are not in this committee’s jurisdiction,” Cochran said. “Their presence in this bill jeopardizes our ability to fund what needs to be funded in a timely manner.”

If the committee’s amendments fail on the Senate floor next week, it is unclear whether Senate Democrats will try to salvage a number of proposals in the panel’s mark that have received broad bipartisan support. Those provisions include the new G.I. bill and language requiring the Iraqi government to match the U.S. “dollar-for-dollar” on reconstruction funding.

Despite the GOP’s overall objection to the bill’s price tag, many Republican panel members did not forego their opportunity to increase the size of the bill.

For example, Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) offered an amendment – which was adopted – to increase the size of veterans’ education provisions by $100 million. The proposal would allow veterans who live in remote rural areas to receive $500 in compensation for transportation costs associated with their GI bill benefits.