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Democrats Put Blank Checks Back on Table

Democrats Put Blank Checks Back on Table

By Maya Schenwar
t r u t h o u t | Report

In the next two weeks, Democratic leadership in Congress will likely push for a huge, multi-department "omnibus" spending bill which may include funding for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. None of the omnibus proposals raised so far have included deadlines for troop withdrawal, igniting strong opposition from progressives in the House.

On Friday, Democratic leaders from both houses announced a plan for a combination package attaching all of this year's domestic spending bills to war funding, but the proposal was met with a veto threat from the White House. On Monday, Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey, expressing the Democrats' frustration with the Bush administration's rigidity on domestic spending, warned he may propose an omnibus bill that trims off both war funding and $11 billion in domestic programs opposed by Bush.

The developments indicate a focus on domestic spending over withdrawal from Iraq, and demonstrate a new flexibility on the part of leading Democrats when it comes to making concessions on the war. Statements from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer last week indicated Democratic leadership would be willing to provide unrestricted war funding if Republican lawmakers would agree to their domestic spending requests. And according to Roll Call newspaper, some Republican lawmakers are working to cut a deal with Democrats and the White House that would supply $70 billion in war funding in exchange for a portion of the domestic funds requested by Democrats.

No definitive decisions have been made about the content of Obey's proposal or when it will be brought to the floor for a vote, according to Obey's spokeswoman, Kirstin Brost.

Senate leadership is also in limbo on the issue. "We will have to see what the House decides to do," said Jim Manley, Reid's spokesman, on Tuesday afternoon.

The leadership's new openness to negotiations with the Bush administration signals a reversal for Democrats who were steadfast in their refusal to provide the White House with additional funds for Iraq unless President Bush adhered to a strict timetable for withdrawal.

Over the past few months, Democratic leadership and progressives in Congress have united behind a promise to begin withdrawal from Iraq. "No blank checks" has been a recurring mantra in response to war funding requests, and in November, a vast majority of House Democrats voted for a goal to redeploy most troops by December 2008.

However, since the November measure failed to pass the Senate, Democratic leadership has avoided talk of a withdrawal timetable, though discussions of moving forward with war spending have continued.

As leadership begins to diverge, top progressives have signaled they will not support the omnibus spending bill or any other legislation that allocates money for war without providing a goal for withdrawal, according to a spokeswoman for Congresswoman Barbara Lee, co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

When tentative plans for a war-inclusive omnibus proposal were revealed on Friday, the chairs of the Progressive Caucus and the Out of Iraq Caucus sent a letter to Democratic leadership reiterating their disapproval of any war spending bill with no timeline for bringing the troops home.

"Should legislation come to the House floor that does not strictly limit funding to protecting our troops and a timeline for commencing and completing their complete deployment out of Iraq, we will not be able to support such a bill," the letter stated.

Although the crafters of the first omnibus proposal expressed regret at the loss of provisions aimed at withdrawal, they have emphasized over the past week that tying up spending by the end of the year is a top priority.

"I feel very strongly that we need to fund the government," Reid said last week. "I do not want to leave this year - or this Congressional session - without passing appropriation bills."

Leading Republicans cited the Democratic leadership's omnibus proposals as progress toward a bill that contains enough war funding - and little enough domestic funding - to pass muster. "We need to keep working together until we meet these two goals," said Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell in a statement. McConnell vowed on Tuesday to amend any omnibus bill in the Senate to include at least $70 billion in war funding - a plan leading Democrats agreed to as part of their Friday proposal.

Last spring, President Bush vetoed timetables for withdrawal attached to the fiscal year 2007 Iraq War funding, and Congress passed the full funding sans withdrawal dates. The threat of a presidential veto will likely swing Democrats toward passing another "blank check" for war, according to Phyllis Bennis, a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies.

"They're not going to stand up to Bush," Bennis said. "It's about fear - they're still afraid of being called 'soft on terrorism,' or being held responsible for 'failure' in Iraq. But it's not a political risk. Their base wants them to cut off funding."

News of the war-inclusive spending bill comes on the heels of a Pew Research Center poll that shows 54 percent of Americans favor bringing the troops home as soon as possible.

The omnibus proposal also coincides with a recent Congressional Research Service (CRS) report that warns of the financial pressure on the federal budget exerted by the past few years' enormous defense appropriations. Defense costs have been growing steadily, far beyond the rate of inflation, according to the report. CRS also points to insufficient oversight and inefficient spending within the Department of Defense (DOD).

The $11 billion difference between the Democratic and Republican domestic proposals is slight in comparison to the budget strain caused by war funding and DOD excess, according to Steve Kosiak, director of budget studies at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

"This administration is only here for another year, and they have no plans to address long-term deficit," Kosiak said. "Although the administration has criticized Congress for minor increases in the domestic budget, their own budget shows very little restraint."

However, with the prospect of a new omnibus bill on the table, debate has shifted toward the question of whether the Democrats will get their $11 billion in "excessive" domestic spending, and away from questions of reducing war funds and including withdrawal dates.

By giving up their language on Iraq withdrawal, the Democrats essentially forfeit their leverage over the war until the next funding bill rolls around, according to Erik Leaver, a fellow at Foreign Policy in Focus. He predicts the Democrats will pass a war spending bill before the end of the year, "for sure."

"Congress is backpedaling in place," Leaver said. "They'll have another bite at the apple around April, when this funding runs out. But for now, we'll have the same thing we had last year - a funding bill with no strings attached."

Leaver added that it is unlikely Democrats will be able to pass a stand-alone bill mandating withdrawal deadlines, independent of funding legislation.

Policies aimed at withdrawing troops are generally most effective when tied to funding bills, according to a November 9 CRS report.

As lawmakers rush to settle war funding issues before year's end, they should bear in mind there will be a larger war spending bill to contend with soon afterwards, according to Kosiak. On the first Monday in February, the president will submit his 2009 defense budget to Congress, which will include next year's funds for the "global war on terror," and a new appropriations debate will begin.


Maya Schenwar is a reporter for Truthout.

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