Democrats May Push $172 Billion for War
Democrats May Push $172 Billion for War
By Maya Schenwar
t r u t h o u t | Report
Bogged down by election concerns, will Democrats in Congress opt to give Bush more war funding than he asked for?
While America is busy deciding which of the Democratic candidates is most likely to end the war, Congress is debating behind closed doors how much of a priority ending the war should be.
Although most Democrats in Congress favor withdrawing troops from Iraq, many are pushing for a $172 billion war spending package that would fund the occupation beyond the end of the Bush administration. In the next few weeks, the House Appropriations Committee may bring to the floor a bill combining Bush's supplemental war funding requests for 2008 and 2009, according to a spokeswoman for Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey.
Bush asked for about $102 billion for 2008 and $70 billion for 2009, the latter of which was not expected to be addressed until September.
The Democrats' proposal essentially speeds up the appropriations process. Instead of approving war funding for 2008 and 2009 separately - which would mean two different debates over the war, stretching over several months - it would clear the way for the rest of the year in one blow. Such a bill could pay for the war through March 2009.
The last time a war supplemental came to the floor, Congress approved less than half of Bush's more-than-$170 billion request. The Democrats' goal in approving only partial funding was to keep the issue of Iraq on the radar, ensuring that the war would be debated again in a few months, when the president would have to come back to ask for the remainder of the funding. Why would Congress now choose to throw in the towel and send almost a year's worth of war funding Bush's way?
With both presidential candidates running on loosely antiwar platforms, a vote on the supplemental during the election season seems welcome for Democrats: it would draw attention to the enormous sum being funneled toward Iraq. However, according to Travis Sharp, military policy analyst at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, the leadership is worried about accusations of not supporting the troops. A funding debate always conjures up images of troops left starving and ammo-less in the field, waiting for DOD coffers to refill. Thus, powerful Democrats figure, it's better to get Iraq funding off the table until after the election.
"In going up against John McCain, Obama or Clinton will be facing someone who looks very strong on national security," Sharp told Truthout. "The Democrats have made the determination that pushing hard for withdrawal will reflect negatively upon them."
Some Democrats also fear that a strong antiwar bill would die a quick, embarrassing death, calling voters' attention to Congress's repeated failures to change the course of the war, even after the 2006 Democratic landslide election signaled Americans' dissatisfaction with Iraq policy. Erik Leaver, Foreign Policy in Focus's policy outreach director, who has been meeting with senior Congressional staffers, says they're worried that any legislation aimed at ending the war would get even fewer votes than similar legislation has in the past. Incumbent members of Congress in conservative districts would be hesitant to cast an antiwar vote right before an election. Plus, some may believe the surge is succeeding and would moderate their votes accordingly.
In pushing for a $172 billion war fund package, the House leadership is not only working off the assumption that nothing can be done to end the war until Bush is gone; it's also assuming a Democrat will win the general election, according to Sharp. Clinton and Obama both promise to begin withdrawing troops within 60 days of inauguration, so, presumably, either one would use the remainder of the $170 billion to commence withdrawal. By that logic, if all goes according to plan, the Democrats could skip war votes for the next nine months and still count on a timeline for withdrawal once the new administration slides in.
However, grassroots groups charge that there's no excuse for deprioritizing the war. Staking an electoral victory on avoiding a discussion on Iraq doesn't make sense, according to John Bruhns, legislative action coordinator for United For Peace and Justice (UFPJ).
"The Democrats want to appropriate this funding in the dark of night and hope no one notices," Bruhns told Truthout.
A Key Time
Though the supplemental is probably headed to the floor with a $172 billion tag, according to a recent Congressional Quarterly report, its specifics are still very much in the works.
An Appropriations Committee meeting on Tuesday, expected to yield a plan to move forward on the bill, proved fruitless, said Cleve Mesidor, a spokeswoman for Representative Barbara Lee, who sits on that committee.
"Basically, nothing came out of the meeting besides what went into the meeting," Mesidor told Truthout, adding that a main item of discussion was a House leadership proposal to attach an economic stimulus package to the supplemental. Many progressives, including Lee, oppose this move, and argue for quick passage of the economic stimulus before hauling out the supplemental for a real war debate.
Lee, with Representatives Lynn Woolsey and Maxine Waters, met with Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Wednesday, urging her to keep the two bills separate, so that members of Congress voting against war funding would not have to sacrifice their domestic priorities.
On the Senate side, the supplemental plan is still wide open, according to John Bray, a spokesman for Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Robert Byrd. Senate Republicans may play the supplemental strategically: Representative Jerry Lewis (R-California) said yesterday that he would attempt to tack onto the funding legislation a bill granting telecommunications companies immunity from prosecution for disclosing customer information to the government. Republican senators are almost universally opposed to attaching domestic funds to the supplemental. "There has been no decision made yet" on whether the Senate version will include the 2009 funds, Bray told Truthout.
Originally, the House had planned to vote on the measure in the first week of May, but according to Mesidor, the second week is a more realistic bet - and even that might be optimistic.
Activists, analysts and progressive members of Congress alike are hoping that the extended pre-vote period will allow time for objections to ring clear. Bruhns is encouraging members of UFPJ and other antiwar groups to contact their representatives, especially Congressional leadership. Leaver is applying pressure to Congressional staffers, stressing that by avoiding an autumn vote on funding, Congress could miss its last chance before the election to demonstrate the difference between Democrats and Republicans on the war.
"I've argued to these offices that they need to have these votes, because they've blown it in the past 18 months," Leaver said, referring to Congress's failing record since the 2006 election. "They need to go down the home stretch fighting."
Leveraging for Policy Change
Despite their funding concession, Democrats probably aren't planning to offer the White House an immediate, all-out victory, according to Sharp. In the last few funding votes, their first-round bill has included a timeline for redeploying troops. This supplemental will probably include a similar provision.
However, if precedent holds, the timeline won't stay in the bill. The withdrawal goals included in the last two supplementals were promptly knocked down: once by the president and once by the Senate. The House acquiesced and sent the president a "clean" bill with no major restrictions on the use of war funds.
Craig Jennings, federal fiscal policy analyst at the government watchdog group OMB Watch, notes that a rejection of the House's bill needn't have stopped Congress members - who, in the end, retain the "power of the purse" - from pushing their case.
"Purse strings always supply Congress with some leverage, but the important questions are 'how much [leverage]?" and "are they willing to use it?'" Jennings said.
Sharp suggests a new strategy. In addition to a withdrawal timeline, he recommends that Congress include a variety of policy provisions, such as a ban on torture, an improved GI bill, restrictions on military contractors and a mandate that the president gain Congressional approval before signing a long-term agreement to keep troops in Iraq. When the president vetoes withdrawal, Congress could still keep some of those restrictions in the bill it sends back to him.
"Bush is going to get his money," Sharp said. "But if Congress can get language in the bill that says the administration has to come to Congress before approving a long-term agreement, that'll be a big victory."
However, if Congress goes through with the combined $172 billion plan, it may be giving up its best chance to pass war restrictions this year, according to Jeff Leys, co-coordinator of Voices for Creative Nonviolence.
Voting on the 2008 and 2009 supplementals separately would allow Congress to attach the second supplemental to the general defense spending bill for the coming year - a huge piece of legislation that must pass in some form this fall. If a withdrawal timetable were attached to a defense bill that also contained war money, rejecting withdrawal would also mean withholding money from the troops and running the rest of the Department of Defense (DOD) dry.
"This move would put Bush in the position of either signing such a law into place with timetables for withdrawal or vetoing the entire baseline Department of Defense budget," Leys said.
The DOD budget generally passes easily (it was one of the only spending bills approved promptly last year), so any attempt by the president to hold it up would likely draw negative attention.
Although passing a $172 billion plan would eliminate most of Congress's leverage in pushing for an end to the war, it wouldn't necessarily mean an end to the year's war funding. Regardless of the supplementals' fate, small amounts of money for ammunition, reconstruction, training and other needs may well be included in the Defense and State Department budgets this fall.
Maya Schenwar is an assistant editor and reporter for Truthout.