House Democrats Seek GOP Help on War Spending

Posted May 8, 2009 at 4:50pm

Despite their increased numbers, House Democrats are once again courting Republicans to ensure passage of a war spending bill opposed by disaffected liberals.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has been urging anti-war Democrats to reverse course and support the $96.7 billion legislation when it goes to the floor this week. But the liberal bloc that has opposed past supplemental spending bills for the military operations appears to be holding firm in its opposition to the latest edition.

“It’s very hard not to vote with our new, wonderful president, but I personally don’t see this as bringing an end to Iraq and I actually see it as going into Afghanistan indefinitely,— Progressive Caucus Co-Chairwoman Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.) said in an interview last week. “My mind is made up.—

Woolsey, who along with other liberals discussed the supplemental with President Barack Obama last month, said it was unclear how many caucus members would vote against the bill.

But with a few careful legislative tweaks — chiefly, cutting $80 million sought by the administration to close the detention center at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba — Democrats should easily cement sufficient GOP support to offset Democratic defectors.

The decision by House Appropriations Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.) to cut the Guantánamo funds represented a frank acknowledgment that Democrats still can’t muster enough support for war spending among their own Members, despite an expanded majority and the popularity of a charismatic Democratic president who has vowed to wind down the conflict in Iraq.

In announcing his decision last week, Obey said he wasn’t going to fight for the Guantánamo funds until the administration fills in some details on the many lingering questions surrounding the plan. Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.), the ranking member on Appropriations, said the decision represented “a conclusion that the administration wasn’t ready and it was a dangerous thing.—

But Democratic aides conceded the decision was driven in part by the fact that including the Guantánamo funds would have been a deal-breaker on the war bill for many in the GOP, which in recent days has ramped up criticism of Obama’s plan to shutter the controversial facility next year.

“The world did not suddenly become safe in January 2009,— House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) said Thursday upon introducing legislation to block the transfer of Guantánamo detainees to the United States. “There are still terrorists around the world who are committed to killing Americans and destroying our way of life.—

The decision to defer a debate on the funds — which Senators are expected to join when they take up their supplemental in committee this week — has the twofold advantage of ensuring GOP support for the bill while neutralizing an issue, at least temporarily, that has provided a rallying cry for Republicans.

For example, Obey said during last week’s markup of the supplemental that an unidentified GOP Member told him the decision to cut the funds “took away our best issue.—

Still, Republicans will continue to press the issue at every opportunity, including the supplemental debate, said Rep. Todd Tiahrt (Kan.), who sponsored one of two unsuccessful GOP amendments in committee that would have blocked the transfer of detainees to the United States.

Tiahrt presented the issue in stark terms during an interview last week. “They’ve made it very clear they’re comfortable with bringing terrorists back to America and allowing them on our streets. I don’t think that issue is dead by any means,— he said.

In an effort to bring liberals back into the fold, the supplemental also includes language added by Obey that requires the administration to report to Congress in one year on progress by the governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan toward five stability and security benchmarks.

The standards fall short of the firm deadlines sought by some, but they were enough to undercut a proposal by Congressional Black Caucus Chairwoman Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) that would have required the administration to develop an exit strategy for Afghanistan.

“I don’t think the votes were there, but I think it’s important that we raise these issues because there’s no military solution in Afghanistan and we have to have a plan to begin to come out,— she said in an interview after withdrawing her amendment during the markup.

Woolsey acknowledged Obey’s benchmarks would attract some liberal support for the spending bill, but said Lee’s amendment would have gone much further in winning over skeptics.

“That would have made a big difference,— she said. “That would help bring an end to the whole situation and we would know that this is a last-time investment, but that isn’t what it is.—