WASHINGTON – Democrats seeking votes for their Iraq-withdrawal plan have stuffed the bill it's in with billions of dollars for farms, flu preparedness, New Orleans levees, home heating and other causes.
Some critics say the Democrats are simply being opportunistic — using a must-pass measure for funding U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan to carry items that can't advance as easily on their own.
At the same time, Democratic leaders are trying to increase support for setting deadlines for ending U.S. military combat in Iraq, which they've made part of the larger legislation.
"The president wants to make sure we take care of Iraq, but I think we also have to make sure that we don't lose sight of what we have to do here at home," said Rep. Rahm Emanuel, D-Ill.
Already, money in the bill not directly related to the war exceeds $20 billion.
The funding — ranging from $3.5 billion for medical care for veterans and active duty troops to $500 million in "emergency" money for a Western fire season that has yet to start — has raised hackles with Republicans who say Democrats are using the measure to muscle federal dollars back home.
"Wartime funding should be not used as a gravy train," said Senate GOP conservative Judd Gregg of New Hampshire.
But Gregg said the White House would be hard-pressed to veto the bill over the add-ons, and White House aides have conspicuously failed to issue one — though a veto promise hangs over the bill because of its higher-profile provisions setting a deadline for ending the U.S. military role in Iraq.
All told, farmers would get $4.3 billion in disaster aid, aimed chiefly at the drought-stricken Great Plains and California farmers hurt by a hard freeze earlier this year.
The drought disaster aid package has been scaled back, in part to make room for $74 million for a peanut storage program that pays storage and handling fees as farmers market their crop. And Rep. Sam Farr, D-Calif., is pressing for $25 million for spinach farmers who pulled produce from market shelves after last year's E. coli outbreak.
Meanwhile, House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey, D-Wis., isn't waiting on the upcoming farm bill to extend income subsidies aimed at small dairy farms. Obey's 13-month extension would cost $283 million.
Those items and others, including $2.5 billion for homeland security projects such as additional cargo screening at ports and airports, $2.9 billion for levee improvements and other aid for the Gulf Coast, and $735 million to close shortfalls in the State Children's Health Insurance Program, offer virtually every lawmakers a reason to vote for the Iraq funding bill — regardless of their feelings on the war itself.
Democrats insist they aren't being bought off.
"Absolutely not," said Rep. Jim Costa, a Democrat representing a farm district in California's Central Valley. The California delegation is demanding help for citrus, avocado and other farmers facing $1.2 billion in losses from a devastating January freeze.
"I would support this one way or another," said Rep. Earl Pomeroy, D-N.D., a driving force behind the drought aid package.
In some cases, such as drought aid for farmers, new money for veterans medical care and additional aid for the Gulf Coast, Democrats are fulfilling promises from last year's campaign.
Still, the need to maximize the vote count among Democrats makes it harder for party leaders to say "no" to lawmakers whose requests are, say, more parochial.
Republicans accused Democratic leaders of larding the bill with spending aimed at greasing its way through Congress.
"They've tried to appease every member of Congress, every coalition, every interest group, by loading this bill up," said Rep. Ray LaHood, R-Ill. He said the strategy risked having the bill collapse of its own weight.
"If this is a sweetener deal, then it makes me real sour on the whole bill," said Rep. Lincoln Davis, D-Tenn.
There are a few lawmakers — such as Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore. — whose support for war funding is contingent on add-ons. In DeFazio's case, it's $400 million to extend payments to rural counties hurt by cutbacks in federal logging.
The billions of dollars not requested by Bush include $1 billion to prevent or prepare for a possible avian flu epidemic and $400 million in additional heating subsidies for the poor.