WASHINGTON – Protests from moderate Democrats and a revolt by opposition Republicans prompted House Democratic leaders Wednesday night to delay a planned vote on a $195 billion measure to pay for the war in Iraq and provide education help to veterans as well as relief for the jobless.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., promised to deal with the concerns of some of her more conservative members, who were upset that the war funding bill is carrying new benefit programs — especially a boost in GI education benefits — without paying for them with offsetting cuts to other programs.
At the same time, Republicans are up in arms that they have been excluded from opportunities to participate in the crafting of the measure, and in response they have forced dozens of procedural votes over the past three days in protest. A vote on the funding bill had initially been planned for Thursday.
"They bypassed the (Appropriations) committee. They refused to allow us to have any amendments," said House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio. "And so the voices of half the American people are not allowed to be heard on the House floor."
Pelosi told reporters that the huge war funding bill would be changed to bring so-called Blue Dog Democrats on board.
"Their concerns are very legitimate," Pelosi told reporters Wednesday. "They must be addressed."
Amid the tumult, Republicans acknowledged that Pelosi had devised a strategy to try to jam the bill past Republicans and President Bush in a form that he might have to sign.
Pelosi's strategy relies on keeping the measure free of many domestic add-ons that have provoked Bush veto threats — except for a politically popular extension of unemployment benefits and an even more popular increase in education benefits for troops returning from Iraq.
Republicans acknowledged privately that Pelosi's plan to send Bush a bill clean of too many Democratic add-ons — and ultimately shorn of language setting a nonbinding timeline to remove combat troops from Iraq — would be difficult for Bush to stop.
"That's going to be really hard for the White House to push back on," said a former White House aide.
Meanwhile, Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., and fellow Democrats on the panel revealed a far more ambitious list of domestic add-ons to the war funding measure.
The additional money in the $205 billion Senate bill includes $8.7 billion for continuing recovery efforts from hurricanes Katrina and Rita. There's also $490 million in crime-fighting grants to state and local governments, $451 million to repair roads and bridges damaged by natural disasters, $450 million to combat western wildfires and $400 million for rural counties suffering from cutbacks in timber-related revenues.
Sen. Herb Kohl, D-Wis., touted an additional $1.3 billion in international food aid, while Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, obtained $400 million more for National Institutes of Health research programs.
The Senate bill contains $9 billion more than the House in non-war add-ons and they would run squarely into a Bush veto threat and are likely to be rejected by Pelosi as well.
Pelosi's plan is to advance the war funding bill in an unusual process where it is broken into three separate pieces for votes in the House and Senate: war funding, anti-war policy provisions and domestic funding.
The idea is to allow anti-war Democrats to vote against the war funding — which Republicans will provide the votes to pass — while still ensuring the money goes out to support troops overseas. Democrats get to vote for restrictions on the war, but the provisions would never make it through the Senate to face a veto.
In a closed-door meeting Wednesday at the White House, Bush tried to rally support among House Republicans in his opposition to the Democratic war bill.
According to an official who attended, but was not authorized to speak on the record on the meeting, Bush said extending unemployment insurance at a time when unemployment was low was unprecedented. He also said he is open to expanding college aid for military veterans but preferred to deal with it in a separate bill.
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky told House Republicans that he would stand strong against any spending in the supplemental unrelated to the troops. "If you stick with us, we'll stick with you," he told the group.
But Democrats say Republicans would be foolish to support so much money for an unpopular war without addressing economic troubles at home.
"The American people are puzzled, perplexed and I think angry" that money is going toward Iraq when there are still emergencies inside the United States, Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., told reporters.