WASHINGTON – President Bush's Iraq war funding request collapsed in the House Thursday as anti-war Democrats and Republicans unhappy about added domestic funding combined to kill — for now — $163 billion to support U.S. troops overseas.
The unlikely coalition formed when Republicans expected to provide the winning margin for the Iraq and Afghanistan funding instead sat out the vote in protest.
The GOP revolt was a response to Democratic strong-arm tactics in advancing the must-pass measure, as well as their efforts to add money for the unemployed and an expansion of GI education benefits.
The defeat of the Iraq funding measure came on a 149-141 tally. Nearly two-thirds of the House's Democrats voted against continuing to fund the war as 132 Republicans sat out the vote in protest.
Democrats then forced through a nonbinding plan seeking an exit from Iraq by December of next year. The 224-196 vote on the measure broke mostly along party lines.
Thirty-two Republicans joined Democrats on a 256-166 vote to sharply boost education benefits for Iraq-Afghanistan veterans under the GI Bill — despite an accompanying tax surcharge on the wealthy and small businesses — and voted to provide a 13-week extension of unemployment benefits.
The practical effect of the GOP protest is likely to be minimal. While it kills the war funding component of the bill for now, the Senate is sure to revive it next week.
The White House weighed in again Thursday with a promise to veto the bill over the non-war spending, the new tax surcharge and restrictions on Bush's ability to conduct the war in Iraq.
Republicans said the strategy by Democrats to load the war funding measure with non-war provisions like extending unemployment benefits unnecessarily delays getting funding to troops in the field.
But some Senate Republicans didn't get the message.
Conservatives Larry Craig, R-Idaho and Richard Shelby, R-Ala., for example, sent out numerous news releases crowing about domestic add-ons such as $450 million to combat Western wildfires and $75 million to help commercial fishermen in a substantially more expensive Senate companion measure that cleared the Appropriations panel Thursday afternoon.
In the House, each side accused the other of using the must-pass troop funding bill for political advantage.
"We're playing political games on the backs of our troops — you know it," said Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio. "All this bill's going to do is delay the process for weeks and weeks and weeks while we play political games."
The GOP revolt came two days after the party suffered a devastating loss in a Mississippi special election that left Republicans saying big changes in party message are needed in order to connect with voters. Thursday's moves were not orchestrated by party leaders and whether they were politically savvy was not at all clear.
"With today's vote, the Republicans have shown that they are confused and are in disarray," said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. "House Republicans refused to pay for a war they support, and by voting against the GI bill, they refused to support our veterans when they come home."
House action on the bill was the first act in a complicated legislative dance that promises to spill over into June, when the Pentagon will have to send out warnings of possible furloughs to civilian employees and contract workers.
Democrats engineered the three-vote minuet to allow anti-war liberals to vote against funding the Iraq war.
The add-ons for the unemployed and the new college benefits under the GI Bill represented the price demanded by Democrats for approving Bush's long-stalled request for additional war funding.
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 would cost $52 billion over 10 years.
To pay for it and adhere to budget rules requiring new benefit programs not add to the deficit, the Democratic plan would impose a surtax on individuals with incomes above $500,000. Couples would pay the tax on income exceeding $1 million.
"We are talking about people who are making over $1 million to pay a small sacrifice for this war where our military families are paying a huge sacrifice," said Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill.
Senators in both parties, however, were balking at the one-half of a percentage point increase in tax rates. At the same time, Republicans and business groups said the plan amounts to an increase in taxes on small businesses that pay taxes at the same rates as individuals.
GOP Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin said the Democratic bill "would bust the budget with billions in non-emergency spending but also raise taxes on small business. I can't think of a worse time to implement a tax increase with a weak economy that is struggling to create and grow jobs."
The war spending portion would have provided $163 billion for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan into next year, slightly less than Bush's request.
The House measure also includes money for foreign aid and military construction projects as well as flood protection around New Orleans and a variety of smaller items.
Besides the GI benefits, Democrats have tacked on a plan to give 13 more weeks of unemployment checks to people whose benefits have expired and 13 weeks beyond that in states with especially high unemployment rates.
Bush also has threatened to veto any bill that ties his hands on Iraq. The House measure would require Bush to begin pulling out troops from Iraq within 30 days once the bill becomes law, with a nonbinding goal of a complete withdrawal of combat troops within 18 months. Senate Republicans are expected to block the provision.