Congress will pass war spending, but not without fight over photos

McClatchy NewspapersJune 14, 2009 

WASHINGTON — Congress is expected to approve later this week spending $106 billion to help pay for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and control the spread of flu — but not before debating a ban on releasing of terrorism detainee abuse photos, aiding the International Monetary Fund and plotting an exit from Afghanistan.

The legislation, ironed out last week by congressional negotiators after a last-minute push from President Barack Obama, provides $79.9 billion to fight the two wars through Sept. 30 and another $10.4 billion to the State Department and other agencies for "stabilization" efforts in the region. It also contains $7.7 billion for flu control efforts.

Such bills usually pass quickly and nearly unanimously, but this one has been held up over a series of issues that continue to sizzle.

"We'll pass this," said Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., the chairman of the House defense spending subcommittee, "but it's going to be a very close vote."

The House of Representatives is expected to begin debate Tuesday, followed quickly by the Senate, and the thorniest issue could be the detainee abuse photos.

The Senate voted unanimously last month to prevent the photos from becoming public, a position that Obama supported. Many House Democrats, however, balked at the idea and signaled that they'd vote against the bill if the ban stayed in.

It was dropped last week, but only after Obama himself got involved, talking to members of Congress via cell phone and writing a five-paragraph letter outlining his view.

While he opposed a legislative ban, Obama said he could, "assure you that I will continue to take every legal and administrative remedy available to me to ensure the DoD (Defense Department) detainee photographs are not released."

Republicans privately maintained that Obama was trying to have it both ways — pleasing some Democrats by not insisting on legislatively imposing a ban, but also keeping others from getting angry because he supported a ban. The original Senate measure, which passed unanimously, was specifically written to "strengthen the Obama administration's legal standing in court," Graham said.

His chief reason for removing the ban from the bill was tactical. Including it, he said, "would unnecessarily complicate the essential objective of supporting the troops and would accomplish no substantive purpose."

That was good enough for Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y., the chairman of the House Rules Committee.

"This was never about the photos for me," she said. "It was about freedom of information. I did not want to set that precedent." The U.S. Supreme Court is ultimately expected to decide on the photos' release.

However, a group of senators led by independent Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut and Republican Lindsey Graham of South Carolina remain concerned.

Graham vowed to halt all Senate business if two conditions weren't met: That the Senate votes on a ban, and that Obama agrees to issue an executive order implementing a ban if necessary.

The Senate voted unanimously last month for a ban, and Obama used strong language in his letter to say he'd support the ban.

The spending bill, though, still faces two other obstacles.

Many Republicans are seething that it includes billions in funding for the IMF, which helps fulfill a pledge Obama made to foreign leaders in April.

"We're putting a global bailout on the backs of our soldiers," said Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana, the House GOP Conference chairman. "It's wrong."

The war-spending bill passed the House last month without the IMF aid, and 168 Republicans and 200 Democrats voted for it.

If GOP members withdraw their support, Democrats would need 18 new votes — and getting them could be tough because the last time 51 Democrats opposed the bill, largely because of their anti-war sentiments.

They objected to the lack of an exit strategy in Afghanistan. House leaders were pushing hard for votes and said privately Friday that they were confident they could convince enough members to go along this time because the agreement requires Obama to report back to Congress, by early next year, on progress in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The report must contain "the ways in which U.S. government assistance contributed, or failed to contribute, to achieving" political stability, curbs on local government corruption and other tasks.

One controversy that's unlikely to resurface this week involves the fate of the detainees at the Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba. The $80 million to begin closing the facility is no longer in the bill.

Instead, the administration can bring Guantanamo prisoners to the U.S. for trial. Before that happens, though, Congress would have to get an "assessment of risks posed and actions taken" to alleviate those risks. After Sept. 30, when the emergency funding expires, members of Congress are hoping that Obama submits a detailed plan to close Guantanamo.

The bill originally cost about $90 billion, but it grew as members added popular projects. Among them is $1 billion to start a "cash for clunkers" program that would allow consumers to trade in old gas-guzzling vehicles for more fuel-efficient ones.

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McClatchy Newspapers 2009

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