tampabay.com

Installment plan to fund Iraq war gains ground

By WES ALLISON
Published May 10, 2007


WASHINGTON - When it was floated two weeks ago, the idea of funding the war in Iraq for two months at a time landed like an egg dropped from the Capitol dome.

Democratic leaders dismissed the idea as ill-advised. Conservatives said the military needed longer-term funding for planning. Liberals complained it lacked a timetable for ending the war.

Even the man who proposed it, Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., chairman of the subcommittee that funds the military, said the idea might not be practical.

Today it's likely to pass the House of Representatives.

Buoyed by polls showing that public support for the war in Iraq continues to slide and the dwindling resolve of congressional Republicans, Democrats have decided the best way to affect change in Iraq is to keep bringing the issue up.

Now, nine days after President Bush vetoed Congress' first Iraq war spending bill, the House is expected to pass a revised version that would pay for ongoing military operations only through July.

Congress would vote again in July on whether to release the rest of the money, covering August and September, or to use the money to bring U.S. troops home.

The White House said Wednesday that President Bush would veto the bill, and it faces a difficult slog in the Senate where the Democratic Party's slim majority demands more moderation.

Even if it never becomes law, however, the ruling Democrats say the bill sends an important message that the House, at least, will not cave to the president's demands that Congress send him the money to keep fighting in Iraq without restrictions.

It also pressures Republican members, who so far have remained solidly behind the president, to defect.

"The goal is to create a dialogue with the president, to have the president sign something that says we're going to chart a new course, " said Rep. Allen Boyd, D-Monticello, a leader of the conservative Blue Dog Coalition.

"You keep the issue on the front burner for discussion. The American people, they already got this figured out - you go out in the country, and people will tell you, 'You got a mess up there.' "

Spending bill passed

Last month, Congress passed a $124-billion spending bill that funded the war in Iraq, among other things, but called for recalling U.S. troops by next spring. It also set benchmarks for Iraqi political and military progress.

With the president promising to veto it, Murtha suggested passing a bill that would provide only about half the money now, then passing another bill in July that would pay for the war through August and September.

But some House leaders, including Murtha himself, worried about the mechanics of pushing another cumbersome funding bill through Congress this summer, especially with the August recess.

Others, including Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Broward County, feared it would simply give Bush what he wanted - the money, but without restrictions.

Last week, however, Murtha and Rep. David Obey, D-Wis., chairman of the Appropriations Committee, made a few key tweaks:

Rather than passing two funding bills, all of the $95.5-billion slated for the military will be included in this one.

But access to just over half, or $52.8-billion, will be restricted pending a second, expedited vote in July. That vote would come only after the president briefs Congress on how the Iraqi government is doing.

"It's better than a timetable, because you are literally able to tie funding to progress, " Wasserman Schultz said.

And by holding another vote in July, "this gives more momentum to us to pull Republicans with us, and make sure we can decide what the next step is."

Moderate and conservative Democrats, such as Rep. Jim Marshall, D-Ga., say they can support it because it has no timetable for redeploying U.S. troops, like the last version did.

Marshall voted against the last one because of it. But he's not against taking stock.

"I'm okay with a subsequent vote, up or down, " Marshall said.

House Republicans are generally united against the two-phased approach, members and GOP leaders say.

"I don't have a problem with Congress voting again, but I think the military needs to know where they're going to be (financially), and not get it piecemeal, " said Rep. C.W. Bill Young of Indian Shores, the top Republican on the Defense Appropriations subcommittee.

Even if some Republicans were inclined to support it, members said, today's vote comes too soon after the last one. After voting almost en bloc against last month's funding bill, some say they would be derided as flip-floppers if they voted for this one.

But July is another matter. Rep. Neil Abercrombie, D-Hawaii, said Congress cannot stop the war without Republican support, and a second vote this summer could provide it.

"It allows people who, I think, are on their last legs ... to say they've done everything that can reasonably be expected, " Abercrombie said.

Among Democrats, the loudest protests have come from the most liberal members, who say they will support nothing short of pulling U.S. troops out of Iraq.

Rep. Lynn Woolsey, D-Calif., co-founder of Out of Iraq Caucus, said she won't vote for today's bill, but she and her allies won't fight it either.

"It keeps it alive. It keeps the options out there, and it continues to put the president on notice, " she said.

The funding bill will move to the Senate if passed by the House, but the reception there has been cool.

According to aides and members in both chambers, the Senate is more likely to prefer a hybrid, providing money for the war through September, as the president has requested, but also containing financial consequences for the Iraqis if they fail to meet military and political goals.

Fast Facts:

Highlights of the House bill

Military funding: The proposed legislation provides $95.5-billion for the Defense Department, including $42.7-billion now to fund operations through July. The remaining $52.8-billion - enough to finance the war through August and September, as President Bush has requested - would be withheld unless Congress voted to release it in late July.

Iraqi benchmarks: By July 13, President Bush must give Congress a report on military and political progress in Iraq, including the status of disarming Sunni and Shiite militias; building Iraqi security forces; reducing sectarian violence; and sharing oil revenues equally among its people.

Out of Iraq: After the president's July report, the House also will vote on a free-standing amendment, favored by many liberals, to use the defense funds only to withdraw U.S. troops over the next six months.

Other measures: The bill also includes a $2.15-per-hour increase in the minimum wage over the next two years, with tax cuts for small businesses; $6.2-billion for foreign aid, including for Iraq and Afghanistan; $1.8-billion for veterans medical care; $2.25-billion for homeland security; and $6.8-billion for Hurricane Katrina recovery.

A second bill, scheduled for a vote Friday, would allocate several billion dollars for agriculture drought relief, wildfire suppression and other projects that had been included in the original Iraq war funding bill that the president vetoed.