Posted on Tue, Jun. 16, 2009
last updated: June 16, 2009 07:42:11 PM
WASHINGTON — A divided House of Representatives Tuesday approved by 226 to 202 a $105.9 billion emergency spending bill to fund the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and help curb flu outbreaks.
However, many lawmakers in both parties were uneasy.
Many Democrats wanted President Barack Obama to provide a clearer strategy for Afghanistan. Republicans protested aid to the International Monetary Fund. Members of both parties were skittish about the lack of an explicit ban on releasing terrorist detainee photos.
Democratic leaders won, though, with some heavy lobbying from the White House, reminding colleagues about the inclusion of some sweeteners such as a "cash for clunkers" auto sales program, funds to help provide air service in rural areas and housing aid for victims of 2005's hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
White House aides worked the halls during the hours before the vote, and Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel called some lawmakers personally. Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., who was undecided and wound up voting yes, said he talked to Emanuel by phone for about five minutes as Obama's top aide explained the administration's strategy in the war on terror.
Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., who voted no, said he'd heard from "everybody but" the president himself.
The lobbying worked — and the bill now goes to a similarly split Senate, would provide $79.9 billion in military funding for the wars, $10.4 billion in diplomatic and humanitarian aid to Afghanistan and other countries in the region, and $7.7 billion to help control the flu pandemic. The measure is to provide funds through September 30, the end of the current fiscal year.
Those provisions weren't the flashpoints, though.
Instead, Democratic leaders found they had to pressure colleagues who're wary of an Afghanistan war that appears to them to have no end and no exit strategy. Fifty-one Democrats voted against a similar funding bill last month, and despite a frantic lobbying effort by Democratic leaders, most wouldn't budge.
"I don't vote to fund the troops in these situations, ever," said Rep. Lynn Woolsey, D-Calif., a co-chairwoman of the House Progressive Caucus.
"How do we support the troops? We support them by bringing them home. That's what we should be appropriating money for, not to keep them there," added Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio.
Some Democrats were assuaged by the bill's guarantee that Obama must provide reports early next year detailing the U.S. policy objectives and whether Afghanistan and Pakistan are helping to implement that policy. Others saw enough other provisions in the bill that they could go along.
The view of Rep. Betty Sutton, D-Ohio, was typical. She was concerned about the lack of an Afghanistan exit strategy, saying, "Our brave soldiers need to know we have a plan and we're looking out for them."
However, she liked the $1 billion for the "cash for clunkers" program — which would pay people for trading in old gas-guzzling cars for new more-efficient vehicles — as well as other items, and voted yes.
Republicans had different objections, notably that what should have been a war- funding bill had become loaded with other non-emergency items.
"This bill has crumbled from what it was intended to be," said Rep. David Dreier, R-Calif.
When the measure first came up last month, 168 GOP House members and 200 Democrats voted for it. This time, only five Republicans voted for the bill, along with 221 Democrats.
Since then, lawmakers added $5 billion for the IMF, fulfilling a pledge Obama made in April at the G-20 meeting of foreign leaders, and that ignited a Republican firestorm.
"Those funds will eventually make their way to countries unfriendly to the United States," said Rep. Buck McKeon, R-Calif.
Many Republicans, and some Democrats, also remained concerned that the bill didn't bar the release of photos of abused detainees at U.S.-run prisons in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Obama tried to defuse that controversy with a letter last week, as well as some personal campaigning, assuring members of Congress that he wouldn't release the pictures.
Tuesday House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., suggested that he had "reason to believe they are looking at (an executive order) as a way to resolve this situation," perhaps an order barring the photos' release.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs wouldn't discuss "private conversations" between the president and Hoyer.
The photo issue is expected to become a major debating point in the Senate, where Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., has threatened to bring the Senate to a halt unless Obama agrees to issue an executive order banning their release or lawmakers pass separate legislation imposing a ban.
"The consequence of doing nothing is unacceptable," he said.
The House vote was preceded by strong lobbying from Democratic leaders, who found colleagues such as Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., torn.
Nadler, who voted for the original bill, said he was troubled by Afghanistan. "I'm very fearful we're getting into a quagmire," he said.
Nadler also didn't like provisions affecting Guantanamo Bay detainees. The bill allows them into this country only for trial, and only after the president has given Congress an assessment of the risks involved.
That makes no sense, Nadler said. "If they're not dangerous, then why are you trying them?" he asked. "And if you say that they are dangerous, no other country is going to accept them."
On the other hand, he likes the bill's IMF and "cash for clunkers" provisions, and Democratic leaders warned him that if the bill fails, it would be back soon without those sections.
"That's a persuasive argument,' he said. He voted for the bill.
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