Markup of Supplemental Adds to Reid’s Woes

Posted May 19, 2008 at 6:02pm

If Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) looks like he has dishpan hands, it may be from scrubbing the supplemental war spending bill before it hits the Senate floor today.

[IMGCAP(1)]After a freewheeling Senate Appropriations Committee markup last week that added more than $1 billion to a bill that already posted $9 billion over the president’s request, Senate Democratic aides indicated that an effort was under way to make the measure more difficult for Republicans to oppose and procedurally easier to move across the Senate floor.

It was unclear on Monday what Reid and the Appropriations staff might be trying to eliminate from the bill, but good candidates could be found in several of the amendments adopted during the markup last week. Case in point: Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s (D-Calif.) amendment to provide limited visas for immigrant agricultural workers, a proposal similar to her long-standing “Ag Jobs” measure.

Besides “Ag Jobs,” Senate Democratic staffers were combing through the bill to identify other provisions that would be subject to points of order, which could create a procedural nightmare for the Majority Leader as he seeks to finish debate on the supplemental before the Memorial Day recess begins on Friday.

Of course, Democratic aides cautioned that efforts to scrub the measure of contentious domestic items might be met with pushback from powerful Democratic Senators, leading to uncertainty about what might be scrapped.

None of this would be a problem if Reid had forced 90-year-old Senate Appropriations Chairman Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) to cancel his markup of the bill. Reid initially attempted to craft a bill with Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) that would have avoided both House and Senate Appropriations panels, but Byrd was not about to be bypassed considering recent questions raised about his fitness for his job, Democratic aides said.

Despite Reid and Pelosi’s attempts to keep the bill’s domestic provisions narrowly focused on new education programs for veterans and extending jobless benefits, the Senate measure quickly became unwieldy with the addition of $9 billion for programs such as scientific research, local law enforcement grants, highway repair and disaster relief.

Democratic leaders see the additional spending as veto bait and possibly as interfering with their message of providing for veterans and the unemployed. And Republicans agree, saying the Senate committee’s decision to increase the supplemental’s price tag will make it harder for Democrats to tar Republicans as having voted against a new GI bill in the measure.

“There is not going to be a vote on the GI bill. There’ll be a vote on a package that includes the GI bill,” said one senior Senate Republican aide.

Reid spent much of Monday working the phones to gauge the “mood of different members of the caucus,” said one senior Senate Democratic aide. Reid will not bring the supplemental to the floor until after the Democrats’ regular Tuesday strategy session, the aide said.

As of press time, Senate Democratic leaders still had not decided which procedural options to use, but Republicans said they expected Reid to use a maneuver known as “filling the amendment tree,” which would preclude the GOP from offering amendments. Democratic aides said they might still reach an agreement with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on a limited number of amendments.

“We’re going to take this one step at a time,” said the senior Senate Democratic aide.

Procedurally, Democrats are in a bind. They could fill the amendment tree, but the bill would be easily filibustered if Reid doesn’t offer amendments addressing GOP concerns, such as the language calling for a drawdown of troops from Iraq.

Plus, the House originally was slated to send the supplemental over as three separate amendments: war funding, domestic funding and language restricting war operations. But a House GOP stunt last week killed the war funding portion, leaving the Senate to add war funding to the amendment containing restrictions on the war.

Reid must take into account the possibility that Republicans might not attempt to get rid of all the veto bait to get the measure quickly to the president and to gum up the Democratic strategy. It’s the same strategy McConnell employed during last spring’s supplemental debate. In the end, Democrats sent the president the “clean” supplemental he requested, after the first one was vetoed.

In this case, the House measure includes a tax on millionaires to pay for the GI bill. It’s a provision many Democrats want taken out, but they may not be able to count on Republicans to do their dirty work, GOP aides cautioned.

The Democrats’ “calculation right now is how do they get a bill that will inflict the most pain for Republicans, while our calculation right now is how do we get a bill done by June 15 and get the troops funded,” said one senior Senate Republican aide.

Compounding Reid’s problems this week is the likely absence of Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), who suffered a seizure over the weekend and has been hospitalized.

Votes on the supplemental and the budget are expected to be close and the lack of just one Democratic Senator could doom several of the party’s supplemental proposals, given the likely 60-vote threshold that will have to be met to block a filibuster. Additionally, Democratic presidential aspirants Sens. Barack Obama (Ill.) and Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) have been put on notice that their attendance will be needed, but their availability for all the potential supplemental votes might be in question, one Democratic aide noted.

Because of that, Senate Democratic aides cautioned that votes on the budget resolution in particular might have to be postponed until after Memorial Day. Even if Obama and Clinton are present, Kennedy’s absence could cause the budget resolution to fail.