Congress battles over paying for wars, Guantanamo

McClatchy NewspapersMay 14, 2009 

WASHINGTON — The House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly Thursday to spend $96.7 billion largely for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars after lawmakers sparred sharply over how to fight terrorists most effectively.

The 368-60 vote on the bill, which also includes $2 billion to help fight flu outbreaks, was the first step in an effort to get the funding to President Barack Obama's desk by the end of next week.

The Senate Appropriations Committee wrote its own nearly identical version of the measure Thursday, and the full Senate is likely to debate it next week.

The Senate bill would spend somewhat less than the House's, and includes about $5 billion for a U.S. contribution to help bolster the International Monetary Fund, part of a pledge by the Group of 20 nations at last month's London summit to help poorer nations.

The House debate centered on the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and the wars, with liberals unhappy about funding what they see as an endless war in Afghanistan while conservatives complained about plans to close the Guantanamo prison.

"President Obama was simply wrong to announce plans to close Guantanamo Bay without any plan to deal with the dangerous detainees who remain there to this day," said House Republican Conference Chairman Mike Pence, R-Ind.

The Obama administration had sought $80 million to begin drawing up relocation plans for the 241 detainees who are still there. The money wasn't included in the House bill, but the Senate measure contains $50 million for the Pentagon to help close the facility and $30 million for Justice Department reviews of Guantanamo detainee and interrogation policies.

The Pentagon money could be spent 30 days after Defense Secretary Robert Gates comes up with a plan to relocate the detainees, a plan that the Senate bill says must keep them outside the United States.

None of that mollified opponents of closing the prison.

"Americans are worried that closing Guantanamo by an arbitrary deadline won't keep them as safe as Guantanamo has," said Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. "State and local officials in places like Louisiana, California, Virginia and Missouri have been introducing resolutions to keep terrorists from coming to their communities."

In the House, Democrats urged patience.

The bill "is not perfect," said Rep. Ed Perlmutter, D-Colo. "President Obama inherited an international mess, and American voters chose President Obama and his plans."

The House bill would direct Obama to submit to Congress by Oct. 1 a "comprehensive plan" for Guantanamo.

Most of the "no" votes came from liberals who were upset that the war funding was unbound by limits on how it could be used.

The House bill would provide $84.5 billion for the two wars, including $734.4 million for more than 170,000 military personnel who've had their enlistments involuntarily extended since Sept. 11, 2001, at $500 a month for every month they've been held under such "stop-loss" orders.

The biggest chunk of Pentagon and intelligence money, some $47.7 billion, would go for operations in the two wars, while $23 billion would be used to refurbish or replace equipment damaged or worn out in the two countries.

House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey, D-Wis., was sympathetic to colleagues' concerns about Afghanistan, but he urged giving Obama a chance.

"We now have a new president who is trying to end the American commitment in Iraq. He is also confronted by the mess in Afghanistan that has been made much worse by the diversion of attention" to Iraq in recent years, Obey said. "The president cannot wave a magic wand and end that war."

Give Obama time, Obey said, though not too much. The bill would require the president to report to Congress next February on whether the Afghan and Pakistani governments are "demonstrating the necessary commitment, capability, conduct and unity of purpose" to continue the U.S. policy in those nations.

The bill says that the Obama report must contain data about government corruption and action to overcome it, the abilities of the governments to control their own nations and efforts to thwart counterinsurgency operations.

That wasn't enough for many liberals.

"As the mission has grown bigger, the policy has grown even more vague," said Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass.

The measure includes provisions unrelated to the wars, such as:

  • $2 billion for a flu response. Federal health agencies would use some $1.5 billion to develop, purchase and stockpile vaccines, and $350 million would go to help state and local governments prepare for a pandemic.
  • $55 million for the National Nuclear Security Administration to help protect nuclear material in Russia and other international sites.
  • $17 million for counter-terrorism activity at the Justice Department as well as to provide training and aid to the Iraqi criminal-justice system.

ON THE WEB

Summary of Senate Appropriations Committee supplemental budget

Summary of House supplemental appropriations bill

House roll call vote on supplemental budget

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McClatchy Newspapers 2009

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