Democrats tie vets’ benefits to withdrawal
WASHINGTON – Setting up their last major battle over war policy with President Bush, House Democrats on Tuesday unveiled a plan to link their favored domestic spending projects and a troop withdrawal timeline to additional funds for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan requested by the White House.
The $195 billion spending measure would pay for the wars well into next year while tacking on $11 billion to extend unemployment benefits and nearly $1 billion to offer expanded higher education benefits for war veterans. Democrats said they are hopeful the spending provisions, particularly the education measure, would prove politically difficult for Bush to veto in an election year.
“If he wants to make a federal case out of the fact that we feel the need to do something major to reward the troops, that’s his prerogative. But I don’t think the country will agree with him. And I certainly don’t think the country would agree with any effort to deny the extension of unemployment benefits,” said House Appropriations Chairman David Obey, D-Wisc.
The White House remained opposed to the additional spending, demanding a “clean” bill to fund the wars by the symbolically important date of Memorial Day.
“We feel strongly that the Iraq war supplemental should remain for national security needs. We understand that there could be debates on other issues, such as unemployment benefits and food stamps, other issues that are important to a lot of people. But those issues can be taken up separate from our national security needs,” said White House Press Secretary Dana Perino.
House Republicans also denounced the plan.
“It is unacceptable and, indeed, unimaginable for Congress to continue to hold our troops hostage for political leverage. If House Democrats want to ramp up spending on other government programs, those items should be considered separately,” said House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio.
The House’s emergency supplemental funding measure is broken into three pieces, including $162.6 billion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, of which $66 billion is designed to cover war costs for several months after the next administration takes over. The second portion includes language mandating immediate troop withdrawals with a goal of full redeployment by the end of 2009. The third part includes the domestic spending.
Democrats expect the bill to pass the House today, with the military funding amendment winning strong support from Republicans and the other amendments securing approval based largely on Democratic votes.
In the Senate, where the language calling for troop withdrawals stands no chance of surviving, the key showdown next week is likely to focus on the level of Republican support for expanding veterans’ education benefits, a provision sponsored by Sen. James Webb, D-Va.
Some Senate Republicans already have signaled support for Webb’s measure and endorsed the unusual route of authorizing a new program on an appropriation bill.
“If you’ve got to get the job done, sometimes you have to use an unusual tactic,” said Sen. John Warner, R-Va., a co-sponsor of Webb’s bill.