Blank Check for Afghanistan Passes
Blank Check for Afghanistan Passes, Iraq Funds to Come
By Maya Schenwar
t r u t h o u t | Report
Under a cloud of frustration, the House of Representatives passed an omnibus spending bill on Monday night that contains $31 billion for the war in Afghanistan, with the expectation Iraq war funding will be added in the Senate. Additionally, the bill submits to most of the president's requests on domestic spending.
Unlike the $50 billion Democratic war funding bill proposed in November, which was defeated in the Senate, the new bill contains no provisions for a troop withdrawal.
A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said the bill is expected to pass the Senate by Tuesday night. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said last week he would amend the bill to raise war funding - for both Iraq and Afghanistan - to $70 billion once the omnibus bill reached the Senate floor. Reports last week indicated that leading Democrats in the Senate would concede to increases in Iraq funding.
Reid's spokesman declined to comment on Iraq funds in the final bill.
House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey made no secret of the omnibus bill's shortcomings when he unveiled it on Sunday, declaring that Democrats must wait for a new administration to take office before many of its priorities can be accomplished.
"We have arrived at this point because the White House and their allies in the Senate have refused to respond to the American people's cry for change in the last election," he said in a statement released on Sunday. "America needs a President who will not have as his only priority asking Congress for more and more money in Iraq at the expense of our society here at home."
In Obey's closing statement on the floor Monday night, he called his bill's domestic appropriations "totally inadequate," especially considering the size of the president's suggested war budget, but emphasized drastic cuts were necessary in order to ensure passage.
Although Bush originally demanded Congress provide the entire $200 billion in war funds he requested in October, last week he said he'd sign a bill for a "down payment," indicating that, if the Senate and House accept McConnell's Iraq amendment, Congress will stand a good chance of going home at the end of this week with the 2008 spending bills passed.
"It's clear, based on Congress's actions, that they believe it's better for the country and their agenda to get the budget passed," said National Priorities Project Communications Director Pam Schwartz, noting that the omnibus bill boosts funding for medical research, health care access and Head Start programs. "At all costs, they want to get the business done. But to do that, they are trading in some pretty basic priorities."
Any restriction-free funding aimed at Iraq would face stiff opposition in the House, according to a spokesman for Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who said the Speaker plans to vote against the amendment. Last week, the leaders of the Progressive Caucus released a letter stating that they would oppose any Iraq funds tied to the omnibus bill if the legislation does not include a timetable for troop withdrawal.
In a prelude to the full war funding vote, 13 Progressive Caucus members voted against the Afghanistan supplemental, a much less controversial piece of legislation, last night.
"The House continues to fund a fruitless war in Afghanistan," said Congressman Dennis Kucinich, who voted "nay," in a statement. "Just as we must get out of Iraq, we must leave Afghanistan as well."
Grassroots activists around the country are putting pressure on their Congress members to vote down the Iraq-inclusive bill in the Senate. Hundreds of antiwar groups have been staging call-in campaigns on Iraq and Afghanistan funding over the past few weeks, according to Carolyn Eisenberg, co-chair of the Legislative Working Group of United for Peace and Justice.
"Most probably, the Senate is going to put in this $70 billion," Eisenberg said. "What's not clear is whether the House will pass it. Progressives are fighting back on this one. If they weren't fighting back, Iraq funding would've passed already."
Even if the $70 billion amendment does not pass, some of the House plan's $31 billion for Afghanistan will be available for Iraq, as long as it is used for body armor or "force protection items."
This exception might provide a "big loophole," said OMB Watch policy analyst Matt Lewis. "It seems like 'force protection' could mean pretty much anything."
The president's past actions show that once defense funds have been appropriated, he is prepared to ignore restrictions on their usage. After the 2008 Defense Appropriations Act, which forbade the use of general defense funds for the "Global War on Terror," President Bush released a signing statement announcing he would disregard the ban.
Regardless of the outcome of this week's omnibus bill, it won't be the end of the drive to finance the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Bush's reference to the bill as a "down payment" indicates he expects another infusion of funds in the next few months. At the rate the war is going, the omnibus bill's supplemental could last until late spring, according to Lewis, considering there is still funding available for war in the baseline defense budget. At that point, Congress would vote on another supplemental bill, which, Lewis estimates, will probably total around $100 billion.
Moreover, the omnibus bill comes a month and a half before the administration reveals its estimate on how much the wars will cost in the next fiscal year: the FY 2009 budget will be introduced the first Monday in February.
Judging by the Democrats' funding concessions over the past week, the president and Republicans in Congress will probably request similar amounts of funding - with no withdrawal deadlines - in future war supplemental requests, according to Schwartz.
"Based on what Congress has agreed to, the president will be emboldened to continue on his current trajectory, cutting domestic spending and increasing war funds," Schwartz said. "The $70 billion is just the beginning of that."
Maya Schenwar is a reporter for Truthout.org.