Will Congress keep paying for these two wars?

McClatchy NewspapersMay 10, 2009 

WASHINGTON — The debate over how - and how long - the United States should fight wars in Iraq and Afghanistan returns to Washington's political stage this week as a wary Congress begins considering new funding for the conflicts.

The House of Representatives is scheduled to spar over a $96.7 billion plan to pay this year's costs for the wars and flu prevention strategies, with final passage likely by the end of the week. The Senate Appropriations Committee plans to write its version on Thursday.

Lawmakers expect at least two major conflicts of their own — one over methods of measuring the wars' progress, and the other dealing with detainees from soon-to-be-closed Guantanamo Bay prison.

The House bill would require President Barack Obama to tell Congress by Oct. 1, in writing, his plan for closing the Cuban facility, which Obama has said will close by Jan. 22, 2010. The measure doesn't include $80 million the administration sought for closing Guantanamo.

The $84.5 billion in war funding, which would push the cost of the two conflicts past $1 trillion since the U.S. invaded Afghanistan after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, is also likely to trigger a lively fight, pitting Democrat against Democrat.

"We don't have any end in here for Afghanistan and I don't like that we're going to continue to be in Iraq," said Congressional Progressive Caucus Co-Chairwoman Lynn Woolsey, D-Calif.

Obama has said that the U. S. combat mission in Iraq will end by August 31, 2010, and that all U.S. troops should be out by the end of 2011, but he's given no timeline for Afghanistan. The bill requires monthly reports from the Pentagon and other national security officials on progress in Iraq.

It also mandates a report on Afghanistan and Pakistan by early next year assessing whether those governments are "demonstrating the necessary commitment, capability, conduct and unity of purpose" to warrant the current level of U. S. involvement.

The report must include details on the "level of political consensus and unity of purpose to confront the political and security challenges facing the region," as well as how the governments plan to deal with corruption and controlling their own territory.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. had supported timelines when George W. Bush was president but is discouraging them now.

Anti-war liberals could mount an effort to include firm timelines for progress, but Pelosi is urging them to trust Obama.

"The president now has to take the time that is necessary to keep the American people safe," she said, "to stabilize the region and to do so in a way that makes everyone who has an interest in the stability of Afghanistan to make an investment there."

Pelosi, though, eventually may face a formidable legislative force: House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey, D-Wis., has warned that he is "extremely dubious that the administration will be able to accomplish what it wants to accomplish" in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

"When I came here in 1969 I was opposed to the Vietnam War," he recalled, "but President Nixon pointed out that he had inherited it and deserved some time to try and make his policy work, so I decided to keep my mouth shut for a year."

After that year, seeing no progress in Vietnam, Obey began speaking out against the policy.

"I am following that same approach here," he said. While he's willing to give the administration "everything that they want" now, at the end of the year he wants "an honest, tough-minded evaluation of the chances of success."

The war funding is expected to pass because skeptics want to give Obama some time.

"I don't want to continue a war," said Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, who is undecided about her vote. But, she said, "I really think the administration has been effectively articulate in their desire to end the war in Iraq and change the situation in Afghanistan."

Equally combustible this week could be Obama's desire to close Guantanamo.

Congressional Republicans hope to use the scheduled closure _and lack of a plan for what to do with the 241 detainees still there — to accuse Obama and Democrats of being weak on national security and soft on terrorists.

Republican leaders Thursday unveiled their "Keep Terrorists Out of America Act," a proposal that would forbid relocating Guantanamo Bay prisoners to any facility in the United States unless the receiving state's governor and legislature approve.

The measure has become a major GOP offensive, with House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, asking in a Web video ad "Just what is the administration's overarching plan to take on the terrorist threat and to keep America safe?"

Republican lawmakers this week rhetorically asked whether the American public wants suspected terrorists housed in Missouri, Kansas, Wisconsin, Virginia, South Carolina or New York.

"And the thought of having any number of these detainees ... the security provisions that would require, the risk it would create, and, being literally in the shadow of Ground Zero, I find not just offensive, but also extremely dangerous," Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., said at a news conference unveiling the GOP plan.

ON THE WEB:

House Appropriations Committee war funding summary

House Appropriations Committee pandemic flu initiative

President Barack Obama's 2010 budget

Republicans' "Keep Terrorists Out of America Act" fact sheet

Congressional Progressive Caucus website

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McClatchy Newspapers 2009

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