WASHINGTON – The Democratic-led Congress finally appears ready to give President Bush $162 billion in long-overdue funds for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The House is slated on Thursday to ratify a deal worked out between House Democrats and Republicans and the White House. If it passes as expected, the measure would put to rest Bush's long-standing battles with the Democrats over war funding. At the same time, Democrats would win help for the unemployed and a remarkably generous increase in GI Bill education benefits for military service members.
House passage of the bill also would pave the way for a quick infusion of emergency flood relief for the Midwest, though more is expected to be needed to deal with the terrible losses in Iowa, Illinois and other states.
The latest installment of war funding would bring to well over $600 billion the amount of money Congress has provided for the unpopular war in Iraq. It also would give Bush's successor several months to set Iraq policy after taking office in January — and spares lawmakers the need to cast more war-related votes closer to Election Day.
House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey, D-Wis., a key negotiator, said the way it's been set up now, whoever is president next "will have a few months to think through how we are going to extricate ourselves."
"This is an agreement that has been worked out in a bipartisan way that I think is acceptable to both most Democrats and most Republicans," House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, said.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., withheld an outright endorsement but through a spokesman praised several key elements of the deal.
White House Budget Director Jim Nussle said Thursday that President Bush "can support" the measure.
"It meets the needs of the troops; it doesn't tie the hands of commanders in the field," Nussle said. He also said the spending levels in the bill stayed within Bush's demands. The latter claim was a stretch since the measure carries new GI Bill benefits, as well as additional unemployment payments that Bush has threatened to veto.
But the agreement drops restrictions on Bush's ability to conduct the war and gives him almost all of the funding he sought more than a year ago for Iraq and Afghanistan.
The White House — and Capitol Hill Republicans — had signaled greater flexibility in recent weeks after Democrats orchestrated impressive votes to more than double GI Bill college benefits and give a 13-week extension of unemployment payments for people whose benefits have run out.
In late-stage talks, Democrats dropped a provision to pay for the GI college benefits by imposing a half-percentage point income tax surcharge on incomes exceeding $500,000 for single taxpayers and incomes over $1 million earned by married couples. They also dropped a plan to extend unemployment benefits for an additional 13 weeks in states with particularly high unemployment rates.
Democrats and governors across the country emerged the victors in a battle with the White House to block new Bush administration rules designed to cut spending on Medicaid health care for the poor and disabled.
Conservative "Blue Dog" Democrats are upset that the new GI Bill benefits, with costs tentatively estimated at $62 billion over the next decade, will be added to the deficit instead of being "paid for" as called for under House rules.
"We know the day of reckoning is coming," said Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Calif., who said not paying for the GI Bill benefit was "totally irresponsible."
The new GI Bill essentially would guarantee a full scholarship at any in-state public university, along with a monthly housing stipend, for people who serve in the military for at least three years. It is aimed at replicating the benefits awarded veterans of World War II and more than doubles the value of the benefit — from $40,000 today to $90,000.
On war spending, the bill would prohibit U.S. money from being spent on Iraq reconstruction efforts unless Baghdad matches every dollar spent. But negotiators dropped a demand that Bush negotiate an agreement with Baghdad to subsidize the U.S. military's fuel costs so troops operating in Iraq aren't paying any more than Iraqi citizens are.