Blue Dogs Yet to Bite on War Bill

Posted June 4, 2008 at 6:41pm

House Democratic leaders’ desire to suspend pay-as-you-go rules and swiftly pass a $250 billion Iraq War supplemental — including a $52 billion upgrade to the GI bill — has run into an ornery group of Blue Dogs, even as Republicans indicate they might back the bill if no tax increase is attached.

Leaders of the moderate-to-conservative Democratic Blue Dog Coalition said they have formally asked Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) to once more pass the war spending bill with an offset for the GI bill included to comply with PAYGO, despite President Bush’s veto threats and Senate leaders’ insistence that they do not have the votes to add a tax increase.

“It’s my hope that the Speaker and the Majority Leader will send the bill out of here paid for,” said Rep. Allen Boyd (D-Fla.), co-chairman of the Blue Dogs. “We just want to continue to move toward fiscal discipline and fiscal responsibility. We’ve gotten so in the habit of spending whatever you felt like you needed without regard for how you pay for it,” he said.

Boyd left open the possibility that Blue Dogs might eventually back a bill without offsets.

“If the Senate rejects that again, then we’ll go from there,” he said.

Boyd hinted that Blue Dogs might vote against the rule for the bill, which would force Democratic leaders to either find Republican votes or kill the bill.

“The greatest leverage, as you know, is on the rule. That’s not a secret,” he said.

“I hope we can stick to our guns,” Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.) said. “Just because the Senate’s going to cave doesn’t mean we should. It will be a moment of truth for the Blue Dogs.”

Cooper said the Blue Dogs all support veterans but that the GI bill should have gone through the normal process. “This bill hasn’t had a hearing. It’s a last-minute, election-year ploy.”

But Hoyer had hinted earlier Wednesday that the tax increase wasn’t going to be included in the bill.

“To hold our veterans hostage to a Senate that won’t pay for things, and their health care hostage and their future well-being hostage to a Senate that won’t pay for things, I think is not good policy,” Hoyer told reporters. “Sen. Reid has made it clear that they can’t pass it. Not only that, the president has made it clear that he would veto it. He has not said that he would veto the GI bill.”

A Democratic leadership aide acknowledged the Blue Dogs’ request.

“We understand the Blue Dogs’ concerns, but leaders are looking for a way that we can get a bill providing funding for the troops signed into law and will continue to talk to them about how to achieve that,” the aide said.

Another House Democratic aide said Blue Dogs are ultimately going to have to make a decision. “They are going to have to decide, when push comes to shove, is it not paid for or do we lose this bill?” the aide said.

House Republican leaders, meanwhile, refused to say whether they had the votes to back up a veto of a war bill that includes the GI package opposed by the White House, which has warned that the GI bill as drafted could hurt retention of soldiers who could take advantage of full college benefits.

House Minority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) expressed his disappointment that most Senate Republicans backed the package with significant extra spending, but he said he’d have to see what the Democrats ultimately come up with before commenting on whether they had the votes to back a possible presidential veto.

Some Republicans, however, said they hoped and expected Bush to sign a bill that included the GI package but no tax increase.

“I would very likely be voting for it,” said Rep. Bill Young (R-Fla.), the ranking member of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense. “Both sides have been trying to use it for politics,” he said.

“My wife and I work with wounded kids every day. … I think we owe them big-time and it’s up to the Congress to take care of them. Maybe the plan is not perfect, but very few bills are.”

Young noted that Bush issued numerous veto threats on last year’s supplemental but compromised in the end as deadlines approached for the Defense Department running low on cash.

“I think we’re at the point right now very much like we were last year, that the president would be willing to compromise with Congress. … He finally ended up signing it.”

Democrats, meanwhile, have repeatedly bashed Republicans for opposing the GI bill and see the issue as a powerful political wedge, but the Blue Dogs ultimately may save Republicans from casting a tough vote, to the chagrin of some in the party.

But Boyd said he’s not interested in making political points.

“I’m really not concerned about the box anybody gets put in,” he said. “We’re in the majority, we have the responsibility to govern. Good policy is good politics.”

The House Democratic aide, meanwhile, said not including an offset will put House Republicans on the spot, and getting Republicans to vote for the package is the best chance to get Bush to back off his veto threat.