Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) speaks with reporters about Iraq war funding on Capitol Hill. (Photo: Getty Images)
In a step that sealed the fate of Iraq war funding until next June, the House of Representatives voted on Thursday to approve $162 billion for the occupation, with no strings attached. The vote follows a series of compromises and revisions over the past two months, ultimately resulting in major concessions from Democrats.
The first House vote on war funding, taken last month, failed due to the combined influence of antiwar Democrats and conservative Republicans: a sizable number of hard-liners refused to fund the war with a bill that contained any inkling of "conditions" placed on the funds. Only one restriction is included this time around: a ban on permanent bases, which was also attached to the Defense Authorization bill that passed the House last month, and has been attached to several spending and authorization bills over the past couple of years.
The current version of the supplemental is much closer to the plans of House
Republicans - and the Bush administration - than to the initial proposal presented
by Democrats, who make up the majority of the House.
"This legislation shows that when Democrats are actually willing to reach out and work with Republicans, we can get things done for the American people," said House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) in a statement late Wednesday.
White House Budget Director Jim Nussle was equally enthusiastic about the bill, telling Congressional Quarterly that the administration "obviously" approved of it. The legislation satisfies Bush's demands not only for fiscal year 2008 funding, but also for about half of the funding needed to support status quo operations in Iraq for 2009.
The bill does throw one fairly large bone to centrist and liberal Democrats, despite the protestations of the conservative Blue Dog Democrats: funding for a new GI bill that would grant a free college education to Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans. The supplemental legislation also includes a three-month extension on unemployment benefits. Additionally, the package supplies $2.6 billion for flood assistance in Iowa, a key domestic priority.
The rule by which the resolutions were decided made it possible for pro-war Congress members to vote for the Iraq funding while opposing the domestic spending, and vice versa, since the two sections were voted on as separate amendments.
The supplemental vote provoked sharp splits among Democrats, largely disappointing both the Out of Iraq Caucus and the fiscally conservative Blue Dog Democrats, according to Craig Jennings, federal fiscal policy analyst at the government watchdog group OMB Watch. The Blue Dogs had hoped that the GI Bill funds would be offset by a tax hike, according to the principle of PAYGO, by which all direct spending increases should be offset by revenue increases.
"Ultimately, the package is the politically-possible result of Congressional leadership efforts to move their priorities," Jennings told Truthout. "Getting the troops safely out of Iraq and adhering to PAYGO rules are evidently not their numbers one and two priorities."
Stalwart antiwar Democrats are having none of the plan. Progressive Caucus Chairwoman Barbara Lee is sticking to her opposition to the war and will continue to fight it, despite the passage of the funding bill, her press secretary, Julie Nickson, told Truthout.
"We should not provide one more dime for funding combat operations but should fully fund the safe and responsible redeployment of all troops and contractors from Iraq," Lee said this morning.
Yet, the remainder of the year doesn't leave much opportunity for dramatic changes on Iraq, once funding has been approved. Historically, the best strategy for altering the course of wars has been attaching policy initiatives to spending bills. In order to ensure troop safety and welfare, war spending bills must pass, and must be considered in a reasonably timely manner. Stand-alone legislation advocating troop withdrawals or other measures championed by antiwar Congress members are typically shot down quickly, or linger in committee indefinitely, never to reach the floor for a vote.
"With the passage of the Defense Authorization bill and the passage of this war supplemental, antiwar Congresspersons really have no more vehicles by which to push antiwar legislation," Jennings said. "They have been pretty 'flexible' in their opposition to the war."
However, both Jennings and military policy analyst Travis Sharp note that in exchange for their concessions on Iraq, the Democrats picked up some crucial domestic wins.
"With the economy struggling, these domestic victories are important during an election year," Sharp, who works for the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, told Truthout. "The Democratic leadership is willing to take heat from the antiwar base in order to reinforce the fact that Iraq is Bush's fault, the only way to get out of Iraq is to elect Democrats in the fall, and there are pressing domestic concerns that must be dealt with."
The GI Bill and unemployment benefits, Sharp says, represent significant triumphs for Democrats. The former not only promises a four-year college education to veterans, but allows them to transfer that benefit to spouses and dependents. The latter provides unemployed workers who have exhausted their benefits with 13 extra weeks to find a job.
Jeff Leys, co-coordinator of Voices for Creative Nonviolence, argues that the unemployment extension falls short of satisfactory.
"Unemployed workers will continue to lose unemployment benefits, though now it will be 13 weeks longer before the benefits run out and they and their families are faced with the stark reality of no income for food and housing," Leys told Truthout.
The supplemental now moves from the House to the Senate, and leadership in that body appears open to the compromise.
"We look forward to reviewing the House's proposal for the supplemental," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's spokesman, Jim Manley, told Truthout. "We will take it up quickly once we receive it."
As for the antiwar crowd, Thursday's vote signals a finality of sorts for its efforts to sway a Bush-bound Congress.
"Those of us whose work tends to focus upon ending the war will have to come to terms with reality," Leys said. "We can take our marbles and go home, continuing to live with pipe dreams of impeachment, filibusters, mass action on singular days of action, or a revolution in government. Or we can make the hard assessments of the political lay of the land and recommit to grassroots organizing, with the full knowledge that this organizing includes being engaged in the electoral process."