House readies spending bill
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WASHINGTON -- House Democratic leaders will complete work as soon as Monday on a half-trillion-dollar spending package that will include billions of dollars for the war effort in Iraq without the timelines for the withdrawal of combat forces that President Bush has refused to accept, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said yesterday.
In a complicated deal over the war funds, Democrats will include about $11 billion more in domestic spending than President Bush has requested, emergency drought relief for the Southeast and legislation to address the subprime mortgage crisis, Mr. Hoyer told a meeting of The Washington Post's editorial board.
If the measure ultimately becomes law, it would be the third time since Democrats took control of Congress that they would have failed to force Mr. Bush to change course in Iraq and would have continued to fund a war that they have repeatedly vowed to end. But it would also be the clearest instance yet of the president bowing to a Democratic demand for more money for domestic priorities, an increase that he had promised to reject.
"The way you pass appropriations bills is you get agreement among all the relevant players, among which the president with his veto pen is a very relevant player," Mr. Hoyer said. "Everybody knows he has no intention of signing anything without money for Iraq, unfettered, without constraints. I think that's ultimately going to be the result."
The Democrats plan to take a two-step approach to completing the deal. House leaders are considering an initial allotment of about $30 billion, ostensibly for the war in Afghanistan and some other military needs, which all sides in the deal recognize could be shifted to fund the Iraq war.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., then would allow Republicans to increase that amount to avert a filibuster of the spending bill in the Senate. The goal of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., is $70 billion for the war, more than the $50 billion short-term funding that House Democrats initially proposed but far less than the $196 billion Mr. Bush has sought. The Senate-passed bill would then go to the House for final approval.
Mr. McConnell was the first to suggest the outlines of the deal, which would allow Congress to pass 11 remaining appropriations bills for fiscal 2008. Mr. Hoyer said Democrats are ready to accept that bargain.
But the deal has a long way to go before it can be enacted. Mr. Reid and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., vowed last month to oppose any additional money for the Iraq war that does not come with a timeline for the pullout of U.S. troops. In talks this week with White House Chief of Staff Joshua Bolten and White House budget chief Jim Nussle, Mr. Reid signaled that he could accept the McConnell deal, according to Senate Democratic aides. But Ms. Pelosi is uncommitted, spokesman Nadeam Elshami said.
Republican leaders are badly divided on the plan. At a White House meeting this week, Mr. McConnell presented the proposal to Mr. Bush, but House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, and House Minority Whip Roy Blunt, R-Mo., urged the president to reject it.
Even as Mr. Bush's approval ratings have slid to historic lows, House GOP leaders have stood by him, twisting the arms of rank-and-file Republicans to uphold his vetoes of popular legislation, such as an expansion of the State Children's Health Insurance Program and funding increases for health care and education.
White House acquiescence now to increased domestic spending would be viewed as a betrayal by House Republicans who are trying to reestablish their credentials as small-government conservatives.
"I am adamantly opposed to it," Mr. Boehner said Thursday. "I came here to hold the line on spending, not to raise it."
Mr. Blunt said yesterday that Democrats will give in on war funding, with or without additional money for domestic programs. "There's no reason to make a bad bargain. The president holds all the cards."
Mr. McConnell has been more circumspect in his public statements, predicting that an omnibus spending bill will pass only if Mr. Bush gets Iraq war funding with no timeline strings attached to it.
"We made our bright lines very clear," said Don Stewart, Mr. McConnell's spokesman.
Behind closed doors, Mr. McConnell has expressed confidence in the Republican negotiating position, telling GOP colleagues Thursday that, by holding firm, they had moved from a Democratic offer of no money for the war to at least $30 billion, according to a Republican in the meeting.
First Published December 8, 2007 12:00 am