WASHINGTON – Making a tough choice with U.S. troops still in Iraq, the House on Wednesday sided with the Republican leadership to embrace spending restraint over an expansion of a program to improve military housing.
House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (search), R-Texas, underscored the election-year sensitivity of the faceoff on a military spending bill (search), saying after the vote that lawmakers might reverse their decision in later legislation.
In a near party-line 212-211 procedural vote, lawmakers signaled their willingness to remove a provision expanding the housing program by $500 million from a $10 billion military construction bill for next year.
The language seemed likely to be deleted from the legislation later in the day's debate. The roll call ran 23 minutes beyond the usual 15 minutes as GOP leaders nailed down the votes they needed to prevail.
Without the expansion, the program is expected to exhaust its current $850 million spending limit by November, which supporters said would delay new housing for 50,000 military families.
The showdown was forced by Democrats who want the housing program extended — as do President Bush and many Republicans. The tricky political choice for many in the GOP pitted lawmakers' desire to help the troops — especially during wartime — against conservative concerns over spending and federal deficits.
Rep. Chet Edwards (search), D-Texas, called the effort to oppose the expanded housing program "a slap in the face to America's military families. They have a right to be outraged, and they will be."
The language was inserted into the bill by top members of both parties on the House Appropriations Committee. GOP leaders of that panel ended up reversing themselves and voting to allow the provision's removal, but expressed reluctance.
"If we're going to send them to war, we owe them a quality of life that's better than so many of them are living today," House Appropriations Committee Chairman Bill Young, R-Fla., said of the troops.
House Budget Committee Chairman Jim Nussle, R-Iowa, and many conservatives opposed the expansion, arguing that it would push the military construction bill's spending well over its budgeted allocation. With their narrow majority, House GOP leaders are often loath to oppose that wing of the party.
Nussle said he was responding to "the growing chorus of people across the country who say, 'You in Congress spend too much money'."
Other Republicans accused Democrats of playing politics with the issue.
"It's obviously the political season," said Rep. Sue Myrick, R-N.C. "Our troops are being used as a pawn, and that's very disturbing to me."
DeLay told a reporter that while GOP leaders wanted to win the procedural vote, they might still do something to expand the program.
"We're still in the majority and can fix it," he said.
The program lets the government enlist private contractors to renovate, build and maintain family housing for soldiers. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office has said the expansion's $1.2 billion long-term costs for maintenance and credit subsidies should count against next year's budget.
In a statement issued to lawmakers, the White House budget office said it supported expanding the program, saying, "This increase will help improve the quality of life of our military families."
It also said that contrary to the Congressional Budget Office, White House budget analysts believe the measure would not increase spending next year because it merely boosted the spending cap for the program and provided no extra money.