Budget Makers Plan Tradeoff for War Funds

NY Times, December 8, 2007

Budget Makers Plan Tradeoff for War Funds

By CARL HULSE

WASHINGTON, Dec. 7 — Congressional leaders are assembling a $500 billion package to try to resolve an impasse by providing President Bush with unfettered money for the Iraq war in exchange for new spending on popular domestic programs.

If acceptable to lawmakers and the White House, the package to be considered in the House as early as Tuesday would avert the threat of a shutdown of federal agencies and end a dispute that has lasted months and pitted Congressional Democrats against Mr. Bush and his Republican allies.

Senior lawmakers and Congressional aides said the broad outlines of the proposal called for the House to consider $30 billion for military operations in Afghanistan, as well as money for military bases and support programs for military families to quiet fears of Pentagon layoffs because of a lack of money.

The Senate would then add up to $40 billion for Iraq combat operations, with the expectation the final war spending total would produce enough Republican support to offset defections by House Democrats.

After the measure returns to the House for a final vote, Democrats opposed to the war are likely to vote against it but may not be able to stop it. The decision to free some money for the war without a deadline or goal for withdrawal would represent a major concession by Democrats. They had earlier said they would not send Mr. Bush any more war money this year unless he accepted a change in Iraq policy.

But Democratic leaders now say they have concluded that a logjam of 11 appropriations bills cannot be broken without acceding to at least some of the president’s demand for more war money.

“One way or another, there, I believe, will be bridge funding provided, and should be,” Senator Carl Levin, the Michigan Democrat who is chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said Friday, referring to money to pay for combat into early 2008.

Under the Democratic plan described by senior aides, the Iraq money would be voted on separately, to allow lawmakers opposed to the war to add money for health care, education, home heating programs, border enforcement and other initiatives.

The emerging proposal is similar to the way the White House and Democrats settled their initial showdown this year over Iraq spending, with Democrats’ dropping their demand for a withdrawal timeline in exchange for added spending at home.

Democrats said they might still try to add some less stringent conditions to the war spending. And one noted that though they had been forced to relent, it would be the first time the president had not been given the full amount he sought.

Under this deal, the president would be given $70 billion out of a still pending request of nearly $200 billion for the war. The compromise is also likely to include provisions that address the mortgage crisis, as well as agricultural drought relief and other disaster financing.

Senior officials said that the details were constantly shifting as House committee leaders assembled the bill and that there was no certainty that the entire package would not collapse.

“This is not a done deal by any stretch,” said a top House Democrat, who, like others, would not speak for the record about the negotiations because the measures were being developed and the situation was so fluid.

It was also unclear whether the White House would agree, though the White House chief of staff, Joshua B. Bolten, and Jim Nussle, director of the Office of Management and Budget, met Congressional leaders this week to discuss resolving the impasse.

As envisioned, the package would exceed the president’s overall spending limit by $11 billion, down from the $22 billion that Democrats had initially sought. The amount could increase with emergency spending sought by the administration, as well as lawmakers.

Aides said House Republican leaders, who have welcomed a spending showdown with Democrats in an effort to repair their bruised reputation on fiscal responsibility, have not participated in the talks.

The aides said House and Senate Republicans active on appropriations and some senior Republicans on other panels had been engaged and had indicated that some Republicans would back the deal even if the leadership balked.

The spending bills were due on Oct. 1, the start of the fiscal year, and Democrats, like Republicans in previous years, have struggled to complete them as they juggled conflicting demands for more money and a call by budget hawks in both parties to cut spending and pet projects.

The White House issued veto threats against the spending measures and rejected a major health, education and labor bill. The House failed by two votes to override that veto.

Just one of the 12 spending bills, covering annual Pentagon spending, has been signed into law.

Mr. Bush has repeatedly criticized Democrats for not sending him the spending bills and has indicated that he would be reluctant to sign a proposal that merges them all into a single package.

Democrats are hopeful that he would accept the developing plan. They would like to wind up the spending fight and break for the holidays, with House leaders still striving to finish their work by the end of next week.

Before they leave town, they have to resolve the spending fight, as well as an income tax dispute. They also hope to win final approval of a major energy bill and have other issues to address.

All agencies except the Pentagon are running under a stopgap financing bill that expires next Friday. Though some Republicans would like to extend that through 2008, other lawmakers of both parties would prefer to pass the new bills, because they include money for new projects and lawmakers’ personal priorities.

Despite deep Democratic opposition to the war, Democrats have in recent days suggested more openly that they would clear the way for more war money to resolve the overarching spending fight.

Asked publicly on the House floor on Thursday night whether money for Iraq and Afghanistan that was not tied to a withdrawal deadline would be voted on next week, Representative Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, the majority leader, replied, “I anticipate at some point in time that will be the case.”

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