Deals Break the Logjam

Posted June 20, 2008 at 6:05pm

Democrats and Republicans each had a bill to crow about last week, when a rare spate of bipartisan deal-making broke logjams in the House on war spending and warrantless wiretapping in what may be the last major flurry of legislating before the November elections.

The endgame on the $258 billion war supplemental had Democrats claiming they finally bested President Bush.

But the seeds of Democratic success in winning extended unemployment benefits, a costly new GI bill and a rollback of Medicaid regulations were planted months ago.

House Appropriations Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.) early on persuaded House and Senate leaders to minimize the number of add-ons to just a few big-ticket items, lest they provide easy targets for Republicans. At one point, Members had been pushing everything from road projects to a summer jobs program. But Obey resisted, pointing to last year’s battle in which Democrats were blasted over funding for programs such as peanut storage.

When Obey first came out with his bill, it included a few big, hard-to-oppose provisions — an extension of unemployment benefits and Sen. Jim Webb’s (D-Va.) GI bill. There were also lower-profile items such as foreign food aid and blocking the Bush administration’s new Medicaid regulations.

Bush began the negotiations by saying “108 is 108,” referring to his initial request for a $108 billion war bill, signaling that he would fight against adding a penny more.

But after months of opposing the GI bill as a costly threat to soldier retention and the unemployment benefits as an unnecessary, pricey and premature move that would discourage people from looking for work, Republicans and the White House folded their tents last week, and the final bill actually spent billions more than Obey originally proposed.

A strong 75-22 vote in the Senate earlier had signaled to the White House that it couldn’t count on that chamber backing it up, and House Republicans had struggled to hold together in opposition to an unemployment bill.

The GI bill ballooned in negotiations with the White House to $62.8 billion over the coming decade, although a few face-saving tweaks went the GOP’s way. The unemployment benefits were trimmed slightly, to $8 billion. A 20-week work requirement was restored. One of the seven new Medicaid regulations was preserved. And a package of Senate-sponsored domestic spending items was ditched, although the bill still must get through that chamber this week.

But Democrats dismissed those as minor losses in the grand scheme of things.

“If I had told any of you two months ago that we were going to be able to get a supplemental bill, above and beyond what the president was asking for to include the GI bill, I don’t think you would have believed me,” Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) said. “But we had a strong vote coming out of the Senate of 75 Members and now as a result of that, we are going to see a supplemental bill that makes a major step forward in taking care of those men and women who served for us.”

“It was as good a deal as we were going to get in a Congress that can’t override the president’s veto,” said a House Democratic aide.

GOP aides acknowledged that there was little for Republicans to gain politically by continuing to fight unemployment benefits and on the potent veterans’ issue, and the need to pass the war funding — Bush’s top priority — has been growing more urgent by the day.

Along the way, House Democratic leaders had to throw their fiscally conservative Blue Dog Members a bone in the form of a tax increase on the rich to pay for the GI bill that everyone knew would be axed by the Senate and the president and had no chance of enactment.

When House Democratic leaders agreed to drop that provision in negotiations with the White House and Republicans, Blue Dogs lodged a modest protest vote against the rule on the supplemental. But nearly all voted for the spending despite the lack of offsets and pay-as-you-go provisions. Indeed, the domestic spending package passed on a 416-12 vote.

“How do you take down a candy vote like this in an election year?” lamented Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.), one of the “no” votes.

“You will continue to see this pattern until we get more Blue Dog Democrats elected to the United States Senate,” said Rep. Mike Ross (D-Ark.), a Blue Dog co-chairman. Ross said most Blue Dogs ultimately voted for the funding because they didn’t want to “punish” veterans because Senate Republicans wouldn’t support a tax on the rich.

Liberals, meanwhile, were offered Iraq withdrawal timetables in the initial bill that House leaders telegraphed were purely for show.

House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) chose to put the best face on the deal, noting that Republicans held together again to prevent restrictions on war funding and had blocked a tax increase and Senate spending.

“I don’t have any disappointments,” he said, adding that the bill was a victory for troops and their families.

Republicans, meanwhile, crowed about the deal on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which included retroactive conditional immunity for companies that cooperated in warrantless wiretapping. Democrats won new court reviews of warrantless wiretapping techniques and procedures, but most still voted against it and many went to the floor to decry what they saw as a loss of civil liberties and an affront to the Constitution.

Rep. José Serrano (D-N.Y.) described the vote as a victory for terrorists.

“If they terrorize us into stepping on our Constitution, don’t they win?” he asked.

Nonetheless, Democratic leaders took a pragmatic view, with Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer Md.) knowing that they were up against a July train wreck and many Blue Dog Democrats warning that they wanted to vote for the Senate’s more administration-friendly bill.

“The alternative here to this compromise was the Senate bill,” Hoyer said. “There were the votes on the House floor to pass the Senate bill. In my view, the Senate bill had no less than 230 votes.”

More importantly, Democrats cleared a problematic issue off their plate and can now start turning their focus toward loading up the calendar with politically appealing bills for the fall elections.

On tap for the coming months, Democrats say, are more bills that will put Republicans on the spot, including another run at a broader unemployment benefits package, another attempt to pass an expansion of children’s health insurance benefits, and possibly another domestic supplemental.

“We will see if when we get closer to the election, self-preservation sets in for the Republicans,” Pelosi said.

And with war funding out of the way, both sides will continue to duke it out over gas prices, with Republicans sensing momentum for more drilling and Democrats blaming Bush for presiding over soaring prices.