Variety of Spending Demands Clash in House

Posted June 14, 2010 at 6:32pm

The timetable for bringing an emergency war supplemental to the House floor appears to be slipping again as Democratic leaders struggle to bridge deep divisions within their own ranks over funding for the wars and big-ticket domestic spending items.

Liberals are adamant that they want a separate vote to register their opposition to continued funding for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Some lawmakers in the Congressional Progressive Caucus have threatened to vote against the entire supplemental if they are not given the option to vote against the war money separately.

“Don’t ask people like me to have to vote for a bill that provides funding for teachers and funding for a war,” said Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass), a liberal who is pushing for bifurcated votes. “It’s not right to do that.”

But the dilemma for Democratic leaders is that, without the cover of the war money, it would be difficult to persuade moderates in their Caucus — who are fed up with repeated leadership requests to vote for deficit spending — to support non-war portions of the bill that are not fully paid for. Without the support of moderate Democrats, a stand-alone vote on just the domestic portion of the supplemental likely would not prevail.

“Obviously, I’m going to support our troops overseas,” said Rep. Jason Altmire (D-Pa.), a member of the conservative Blue Dog coalition. “I’m never going to vote against funding our troops in the field of battle. But I need to see what the rest of it looks like. I hear rumors that they’re going to load it up with stuff.”

As a result of the divisions among Democrats, it’s looking less likely that House leaders will schedule a vote on the supplemental this week as they had hoped.

Finding a way to pay for one of Appropriations Chairman David Obey’s top priorities — money to prevent cash-strapped states from laying off teachers, firefighters and police officers — could eliminate a central flash point and help allay moderates’ concerns. The Wisconsin Democrat has proposed $24 billion in unpaid-for “emergency” funding to states to stave off the cuts. President Barack Obama’s Saturday night letter to Congressional leaders urging passage of a nearly $50 billion emergency aid package to help spur state and local hiring appears to have taken Democratic leaders by surprise, adding another layer of complexity to the situation.

Blue Dog Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.) said that if funding like the $50 billion that Obama is seeking is added to the supplemental, “Congress should find a way to pay for it. … The only exceptions should be true emergencies.”

One idea that has been floated is redirecting money from last year’s stimulus law to offset the funds that Obey is seeking for teachers and other local officials.

Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) — appearing Sunday on ABC’s “This Week” — endorsed the idea that the administration could release unspent stimulus funds to pay for Obama’s proposed aid package.

But an Obey spokesman refused to comment specifically Monday on whether stimulus money might be targeted as a pay-for and would say only that Obey was “looking at all options possible to address the large need for education funding to make sure teachers stay on the job and to make sure our students aren’t hurt.”

Given the unresolved questions, the widespread disagreement within the Caucus, and the uncertainty injected by Obama’s letter, a Democratic leadership aide said Monday that there now was “a smaller possibility” that the chamber would consider the supplemental this week. The aide said Obama’s letter reinforced the idea that offsets would have to be found for some of the non-war aspects of the bill, such as the teacher money.

Liberals, meanwhile, are frustrated by moderates’ reticence to support domestic items in the supplemental.

CPC Co-Chairwoman Lynn Woolsey (Calif.) said she would be disappointed if a separate vote on the war money had the effect of imperiling support for teacher funding and other non-war aspects of the supplemental. CPC members sent a letter Monday to Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) calling for swift action on a stand-alone bill aimed at spurring local job creation and boosting teacher retention.

“I would be concerned if we lose votes that support the basic needs of people in this country,” Woolsey said.

“I know they have their pay-for business,” she added, referring to Blue Dogs, “but then they should start looking at taking money out of defense, and that would pay for a lot.”

House leaders were forced late last month, amid opposition from Blue Dogs, to significantly scale back a package of tax break and social safety net extensions to muster the votes for passage.

Beyond bifurcated votes on the supplemental, liberals are also eyeing the emergency funding bill as an opportunity to debate a timetable to withdraw troops from Afghanistan. McGovern is hoping to persuade House leaders to allow a vote on his legislation that would set a flexible timetable for troop withdrawal.

As part of those efforts, McGovern has been working to collect at least 100 co-sponsors for his proposal and edging within striking distance of that goal. On Monday, the proposal had 94 co-sponsors, including five Republicans, enough to exert some leverage in the Caucus.

“We need a vote on an exit strategy,” McGovern said. “Whether that vote comes on the supplemental or in another form, I think it needs to happen. The president needs to understand that there are many of us who don’t want to have this war go on forever.”

U.S. officials’ recent discovery of at least $1 trillion in mineral deposits in Afghanistan has opened up a new front in war opponents’ push to speed withdrawal of U.S. troops from the war-torn country.

“Congress must end this disastrous war and acknowledge that weapons and force will not ensure that these valuable resources do not fall into the hands of international mining companies at the expense of the Afghan people, among the most impoverished people in the world,” Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) said in a statement released Monday.

Steven T. Dennis contributed to this report.