WASHINGTON – The Senate on Thursday approved $165 billion to fund the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan well into the next presidency, but in a break with President Bush and the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, Sen. John McCain, it also approved billions of dollars in domestic spending that includes a generous expansion of veterans’ education benefits.
The war funding measure, which passed 70 to 26, will be twinned with the domestic spending package and sent to the House for final approval after Congress’s Memorial Day recess. Senators stripped the package of all language that mandated troop withdrawals and sought to govern the conduct of the Iraq war, which had been in a previous version approved by the House.
But the separate domestic spending package served notice to the White House that in an election year, lawmakers from both parties will demand coupling Iraq war funds with priorities at home. In total, the bill would cost more than $250 billion over 10 years, including $51 billion for the veterans’ education benefits alone.
“I have spent many days in the United States Senate, and I don’t know of any days I will cherish more than this one,” said Sen. John Warner, R-Va., one of the original co-sponsors of the new GI Bill.
The 75 to 22 vote on the domestic measure surprised even its advocates and showed clearly the impact of the looming November election on Republican unity. Senate Republicans who face re-election abandoned Bush first, followed by other Republicans. Twenty-five Senate Republicans – more than half the total – joined 48 Democrats and two independents to ensure the bill’s passage.
The White House opposed the expanded GI Bill, concerned that the price tag was too high and that the generous benefits could entice service members to leave the military rather than re-enlist. Republicans and Democrats urged Bush to back off from his veto threat.
“I hope the president observes what he sees here and gives us a pat on the back instead of a veto with his pen,” said Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., one of five military veterans in the Senate – three of them Democrats, two Republicans – who gathered to hail the bill’s passage.
The Senate measure extends unemployment benefits for 13 weeks, funds levee construction around New Orleans, and guarantees that veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will receive education benefits equal to the tuition at the most expensive state universities.
It provides additional funds for the Food and Drug Administration, the 2010 census, federal prisons, local law enforcement agencies, heating assistance for the poor and many other domestic priorities. It also blocks the administration from implementing regulations that would limit access to the State Children’s Health Insurance Program.
The fate of the Senate package is unclear. The legislation would probably gain majority support in the House if Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., put it to a vote. But it has serious problems in her fractious Democratic caucus.
Antiwar liberals oppose any funds for the war, especially if they are not accompanied by binding language to bring combat forces home.
Conservative “blue dog” Democrats insist that a new entitlement, such as the GI Bill, be fully funded with spending cuts or tax increases. The House-passed version funded the veterans’ benefits with a 0.5 percent tax increase on incomes exceeding $500,000 for individuals and $1 million for couples.