Road Map: Battle Looms on War Spending

Posted July 19, 2010 at 6:29pm

Teachers are out. Soldiers are in.

At least, that appears to be the direction House and Senate Democrats are moving in as they try to get the supplemental war spending bill to President Barack Obama before the end of next week.

House leaders made a big deal shortly before the July Fourth recess of the need to add $22 billion in domestic spending items — most notably, $10 billion to keep teachers in their jobs this fall — in order to get the votes for nearly $59 billion in funding for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and for domestic disasters.

But in the process of garnering votes, House leaders also drew a veto threat from Obama over the partial offsets House Appropriations Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.) used to pay for the teacher pay provisions.

Not surprisingly, Senate Democratic leaders, who warned the House of this possibility, appear set to strip the bill of all the House’s added domestic spending and repass practically the same measure they approved in May with a filibuster-proof 67 votes.

“We’re not going to get one Republican” on the House-passed measure, said one senior Senate Democratic aide, who added that there are a handful of fiscally conservative Democrats who were threatening to oppose the measure as well.

House Democratic leaders “know full well that what they did is not possible in the Senate,” the senior aide said.

It remained unclear Monday, however, how or when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid plans to bring up the supplemental. The Nevada Democrat noted Monday afternoon that the bill was on his to-do list this week, but he indicated that it will come after votes on unemployment benefits and a small-business lending bill. Depending on how much time those issues take on the Senate floor, the chamber could begin debate on the supplemental at the end of this week or at the beginning of next week.

House Democrats were reluctant Monday to acknowledge that they might have to swallow the Senate’s supplemental bill or to speculate on whether they had the votes to clear that measure.

“We are confident that Democrats in the Senate will fight for our working families, teachers in our classrooms and security for our neighborhoods, and it is premature to comment on what the Senate can and can’t pass,” said Nadeam Elshami, a spokesman for Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

Aides refused to say how House leaders would respond if the Senate strips all or part of the teacher money and other House-added items. But they did not rule out the possibility that the Democratic leaders would take up and try to clear a scaled-back version of the measure to ensure that a troop-funding bill reaches Obama’s desk before Members break for the August recess at the end of next week.

There appeared to be an emerging sense among House Democratic leaders that given the fast-closing legislative window before the recess, the most plausible scenario for sending a troop-funding bill to Obama was to clear whatever the Senate sends back.

“They’ll likely change the bill and we’ll have to take up what they send us,” one Democratic leadership aide said.

Still, Democratic aides disputed a report that House leaders already had agreed to accept whatever scaled-back bill the Senate sends back and were eyeing alternative vehicles — including a stalled tax extenders bill — to try to pass the teacher money.

“Why would the House do that and take pressure off Senate Republicans?” one House aide asked. “Senate Republicans are going to have to explain why they don’t support a paid-for funding to keep teachers on the job.”

But given time constraints facing the Senate, Republicans may never have to vote on the question of teacher funding. And even if they do, one senior Senate GOP aide said, the Conference appears united against adding extraneous domestic funding to the bill.

“I haven’t sensed anything other than an inclination to just go with a clean bill on our side,” the aide said. “People have been pretty clear about where they’re at.”

Regardless, a second House Democratic leadership aide said Monday that one way or another, House Democratic leaders “will make sure our troops have the resources they need before the district work period.”

The aide described House leaders’ posture as “wait and see what can get 60 votes” in the Senate, adding, “We need to see what the Senate sends us and go from there.”

Simply clearing a scaled-back Senate-passed measure could be easier said than done, given widespread opposition among liberal Democrats to war funding. Many of those same liberals are fierce advocates for the teacher money. Republicans have been calling for a “clean” war spending bill and could oppose the supplemental if some but not all of the domestic spending is removed, potentially making it tricky for House leaders to muster the votes to quickly clear whatever the Senate sends back.

Of course, Democrats on both sides of the Capitol say they won’t give up on teacher pay funding and may try to pass it as a stand-alone bill. Another senior Senate Democratic aide said Democrats were close to finding new offsets for the funding that would pass muster with the Obama administration and possibly pick up the handful of GOP votes Democrats will need to overcome a filibuster.

But looking at the calendar in both chambers, it seems unlikely that the bill could be sent to Obama before school starts up again in September.