Senate panel readies war funding bill, flood aid for difficult legislative journey

WASHINGTON (AP) — A top Senate Democrat is fashioning a nearly $60 billion measure mixing war funding with U.S. disaster funds and aid for Haiti in hopes of jump-starting the long-delayed measure and clearing it through a nasty legislative thicket by Memorial Day.

The emerging measure, by Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, is one of the few must-pass money bills remaining on the Senate's agenda in this election year. As such, it's attracting lots of attention from lawmakers hoping to win money for priorities that would otherwise have to wait until the fall — or later.

Inouye told reporters he hopes to hold a committee vote on the measure Thursday. Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., is vowing to pass the bill before Memorial Day.

The measure is a major headache for Democratic leaders, especially in the House, where liberals increasingly are opposed to the war in Afghanistan and refuse to vote for it. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., recently said that passing war funding was the hardest task she tackled in the past year, and that this year's funding round will be no easier.

"This will be a heavy lift," Pelosi told reporters Tuesday.

House leaders want the Senate to go first, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said, so the House won't have to vote on war funding more than once.

At the core of the so-called supplemental bill is President Barack Obama's $33 billion request for Pentagon operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, $5.1 billion for the Federal Emergency Management Agency's disaster relief accounts and $2.8 billion in Haitian earthquake relief money. There's also about $4.5 billion in other foreign aid accounts, mostly for Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq.

Sens. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., have won assurances they'll get flood relief for their states, while House Democrats are pressing for $600 million for a youth summer jobs program.

"This is a 1,000-year flood, absolutely unprecedented," Alexander said of the recent flooding in Tennessee. "It's by far the biggest disaster since President Obama has taken office."

He said repairing the damage would take a "massive amount of money."

Alexander is a member of both the Appropriations panel and the GOP's leadership team, and his support for the measure could help it through the Senate, where Republicans have become increasingly opposed to legislation adding to record budget deficits.

There's also likely to be pressure from the Oklahoma delegation for assistance in the wake of Monday's devastating tornadoes.

The administration, Capitol Hill aides said, is preparing a request to raise existing limits on payments from an oil spill liability and cleanup fund, a step that could help build momentum for the measure.

Aides described the state of play on condition of anonymity because the measure is still taking shape and won't be released until Thursday at the earliest.

Inouye's measure is likely to contain $13 billion in benefits for Vietnam War veterans exposed to Agent Orange, but he said it will not contain more than $4 billion requested by the administration to finance settlements of long-standing lawsuits against the government, including $1.2 billion to remedy discrimination by the Agriculture Department against black farmers and $3.4 billion for mismanaging Indian trust funds.