Lawmakers approve Iraq war funding bill
( LatWp ) - Congress sent President Bush a new Iraq funding bill that lacked troop withdrawal deadlines demanded by liberal Democrats, but party leaders vowed it was only a temporary setback in their efforts to bring home American troops.
War opponents dismissed the bill as a capitulation to Bush and said they would seek to hold supporters in both parties accountable. But backers said the bill's provisions -- including benchmarks for progress that the Iraqi government must meet to continue receiving reconstruction aid -- represented an assertion of congressional authority over the war that was unthinkable a few months ago.
Bush, who had vowed to veto any legislation with restrictions on troop deployments, announced he would sign the $120 billion package, which was approved 80 to 14 Thursday night in the Senate, following a 280 to 142 House vote.
He said the 18 benchmarks should signal to the Iraq government that ``it needs to show real progress in return for America's continued support and sacrifice.'' But he added, ``We're going to expect heavy fighting in the weeks and months'' ahead.
The focus now shifts to September, when the new funding runs out, and when U.S. commanders say they will be able to assess the results of an ongoing troop escalation.
Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., chairman of the House Appropriations defense subcommittee, announced that he would remove Iraq war funding from the 2008 Pentagon spending bill that is expected to reach the House floor in July. Instead, Murtha said he would bring up a separate Iraq funding bill in September, when Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, is expected to deliver a key status report to Congress.
Bush's first report to Congress on the Iraqis' progress in meeting the benchmarks is due on July 15. Sen. John Warner, R-Va., who wrote the benchmark provision, said he added the mid-July report because September is too far off.
``This is a very dynamic and changing situation in Iraq, every single day losing brave men and women in uniform, and casting a greater burden upon their families and the many wounded each day, each week,'' Warner said.
The votes Thursday marked a rare moment of bipartisanship in an otherwise contentious and emotional debate. The first Iraq spending bill, which included a withdrawal timetable and was vetoed by Bush on May 1, split lawmakers more or less along party lines.
Antiwar groups demanded that Democrats continue pressing for withdrawal dates and bombarded congressional offices with angry phone calls and e-mails in the hours before Thursday's votes. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., both war opponents, called the benchmarks woefully weak.
But Democrats were reluctant to hold up troop funding. Nor could they override a second presidential veto. In an anguished floor speech, Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., a longtime war opponent, said he would reluctantly support the spending bill. ``We do not have it within our power to make the will of America the law of the land,'' Durbin said.
Republican support was nearly unanimous in both chambers. In the Senate, 37 Democrats supported the bill, while 10 opposed it.
In the House, a majority of Democrats rejected the Iraq funding. A separate domestic spending measure that was packed with lawmaker priorities, including a federal minimum wage increase, passed easily by a 348 to 73 vote. In the Senate, the two bills were merged into one package.
``We have moved the ball forward. Far enough? No,'' said Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., one of the 86 House Democrats who supported the Iraq bill.
Pelosi was among the 140 House Democrats to oppose it. ``This is a token,'' she said moments before the vote. ``This is a small step forward. Instead we should have a giant step forward.''
In the Senate, the two leading Democratic presidential candidates, Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois, were among the 14 opponents. ``This vote is a choice between validating the same failed policy in Iraq that has cost us so many lives and demanding a new one. And I am demanding a new one,'' Obama said.
Antiwar groups warned lawmakers who supported the spending bill that they could become election targets. Americans Against Escalation in Iraq, a coalition led by MoveOn.org, announced new radio ads aimed at Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Norm Coleman, R-Minn., two moderates on the ballot in 2008. The ads urged the senators to break with Bush and vote to end the war.
``We are moving backward,'' said Sen. Russell Feingold, D-Wis., a war opponent. ``Instead of forcing the president to safely redeploy our troops, instead of coming up with a strategy providing assistance to a post-redeployment Iraq, and instead of a renewed focus on the global fight against al-Qaida, we are faced with a spending bill that kicks the can down the road and buys the administration time.''
The final bill includes $17 billion in unrelated domestic spending, a slight reduction from the $21 billion that Congress added to the first package. The minimum-wage increase would bump the hourly rate to $7.25 an hour from the current rate of $5.15 over the next two years. The wage increase was one of the Democrats' 2006 election promises, and was attached to the war bill to guarantee that it would reach Bush's desk.
The bulk of the funding -- around $100 billion -- would continue military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. The non-military spending includes $6.4 billion for Gulf Coast hurricane recovery efforts and $3 billion in emergency aid to farmers, for relief from drought and other natural disasters. Another $1 billion would pay for port and mass-transit security upgrades. Children's health-care funding would increase by $650 million.
Other domestic beneficiaries include state HIV grant programs, mine safety research, youth violence prevention activities, and pandemic flu protection. About $3 billion would fund the conversion of U.S. military bases that are scheduled to close.
After weeks of insisting that the Pentagon could fund the war into July, Democrats abruptly changed their tune Thursday. Murtha said Congress had no choice but to act this week, since the war would run out of funds on Monday. The Defense Department could shift funds around, he said, but such accounting tricks would be a ``disaster,'' Murtha said.