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War Funding Bill Back on Track for Passage

WASHINGTON -- After a flare-up over controversial detainee abuse photos, House-Senate negotiators sealed agreement on a crucial war-funding bill Thursday night when President Obama personally guaranteed the photos would never be released.

To reassure Democratic moderates who had balked at House demands that Congress not interfere in a lawsuit to force the release of photos of U.S. troops abusing detainees, Obama promised to use every available means to block their release. His powers include issuing an order to classify the photos, thus blocking their release under the Freedom of Information Act.

The promise came after Democratic negotiators abruptly adjourned a public House-Senate negotiating session and White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel rushed to the Capitol to resolve an impasse between Senate Democratic moderates and House liberals over the photos issue.

A federal appeals court in New York withdrew its order that the government release the photographs to give the Obama administration time to take the dispute to the Supreme Court. The move came as a blow to the American Civil Liberties Union, which is trying to force the photos' release.

The compromise $106 billion war-funding bill faces House and Senate votes next week and, if passed, would then be sent to Obama to be signed into law.

Competing House and Senate versions of the war-funding bill passed by wide margins in both chambers last month, but several issues slowed House-Senate negotiations on a compromise. House Republicans now oppose the bill over a $5 billion Obama request to secure a $108 billion U.S. line of credit to the International Monetary Fund to help poor countries deal with the world recession.

The House-Senate negotiating session also sealed a compromise on dealing with Guantanamo Bay detainees. Obama would be allowed for the next four months to order the detainees into the United States to face trial.

Through Sept. 30, detainees from the U.S. detention center in Cuba would be allowed to be transferred to the United States only to face trial, delaying the question of whether Guantanamo detainees tried and convicted in military courts in the United States would serve their prison sentences in the U.S. or other nations.

The compromise buys the administration time as it struggles to come up with a permanent solution to the question of what to do with the Guantanamo detainees that would allow Obama to fulfill his promise to close the detention facility by Jan. 22.

The Guantanamo tangle was but one of several side issues Democrats have struggled with over the past two weeks as they have tried to reconcile Senate and House bills funding the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The tangle over detainee abuse photos came to a head because House liberals found new leverage since their votes were crucial to passage once House Republicans abandoned the measure over the IMF funds.

Lawmakers from automobile manufacturing states won $1 billion for a new "cash for clunkers" program that aims to boost new auto sales by allowing consumers to turn in gas-guzzling cars and trucks for vouchers toward the purchase of more fuel-efficient vehicles.

The legislation was not included in either the House or Senate war-funding measure, and Sens. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Susan Collins, R-Maine, protested that a provision proposed by the House did too little to encourage purchases of fuel-efficient cars and instead amounted to little more than a bailout of the car companies. But lawmakers from manufacturing states, such as Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin of Illinois, prevailed in the talks.

The bill started out two months ago as an $83 billion request from Obama, then morphed into a $106 billion measure brimming with money to fight the flu, buy military cargo planes and help poor nations weather the global economic crisis.

The numerous controversies obscured widespread support for the core of the bill: $79.9 billion for the Pentagon, most of which is for carrying out military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Included in that total was $2.2 billion for eight C-17 cargo planes, manufactured by the Boeing Co., despite Obama's call to terminate the program.

The measure provides $10.4 billion in foreign aid, including $700 million to help Pakistani security forces fight insurgents and $700 million in international food aid, more than double Obama's request.

There's also $7.7 billion to fight the flu -- the World Health Organization declared a swine flu pandemic on Thursday -- far higher than Obama's initial $1.5 billion request. Democrats rejected an administration plan to trim part of Obama's economic stimulus law to pay for part of an additional request submitted last week.

The measure provides $439 million requested by the top Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee, Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi, to restore barrier islands along his state's coastline that Hurricane Katrina destroyed in 2005. That came despite a promise by Obama to keep the war-funding bill free of pet projects.

On the very week that Obama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., appeared at the White House to tout a "pay-as-you-go" law requiring new programs to be paid for instead of being lumped onto the deficit, the measure would use deficit dollars for the auto-buying subsidies programs and to give GI Bill education benefits to the children of military service members who die while on active duty.