CAPITOL HILL – Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid says it will "be extremely difficult" for the Senate to pass the Iraq war funding bill this week.
Despite numerous veto threats, senators in both parties have loaded up President Bush's war funding bill with a grab bag of domestic programs, including work permits for immigrant farm labor and heating subsidies for the poor.
Reid said the Senate would begin debate on the measure Tuesday, just days after a key panel added more than $28 billion to Bush's budget request for this year and next, with almost $50 billion more for a big expansion of veterans benefits under the GI Bill over 2010-2018.
Reid faces enormous procedural headaches in getting the war funding bill — and its various add-ons — passed this week. Democrats have divided the war funding bill into two components: non-war add-ons and Iraq funding and policy restrictions. Reid has signaled he wants the non-war extras to get a vote before the war funding itself, but it's a high-wire strategy.
"It is going to be extremely difficult for us to get from where we are today to completing this legislation," Reid said.
The new GI Bill and Democratic priorities like extending unemployment benefits are simply the big-ticket add-ons, both of which have drawn veto threats. There's also $50 million to track down child predators, $400 million to help rural schools and $350 million to fight western wildan $10 billion below the Senate measure.
The immigrant farm labor provision added to the measure at a hearing last week by Sens. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Larry Craig, R-Idaho, would allow almost 1.4 million immigrant farm workers to stay in the United States for up to five years to ease a shortage of farm workers that has left some crops rotting in the fields.
Sens. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., and Judd Gregg, R-N.H., followed that up with a provision to extend an expired program to allow seasonal workers to return to the country using H-2B visas.
Gregg, typically a fiscal conservative, voted with Democrats at last week's hearing to adopt $1 billion worth of additional energy subsidies for the poor. That provision led top Appropriations panel Republican Thad Cochran of Mississippi — himself the driving force behind more than $1 billion for Mississippi — to warn his colleagues that they were simply guaranteeing a Bush veto.
Still, Republicans such as Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas — a member of the Senate GOP leadership team — pressed ahead with add-ons of their own. Hutchison won approval of $100 million in grants for local law enforcement to fight drug trafficking along the U.S.-Mexico border.
It's the type of situation White House budget director Jim Nussle had in mind last month when he chided senators for a "sky-is-the-limit mind-set" regarding "the desire of some in Congress to load up this troop funding bill with tens of billions in additional spending."
Republican Sen. Kit Bond of Missouri moved to keep open three "veterans business resource centers" with $600,000 in taxpayer funds. One of the centers, naturally, is in St. Louis; the others were in Flint, Mich., and Boston.