By John M. Donnelly and Josh Rogin
Democratic leaders are likely to provide by year's end little, if any, of the supplemental war funding the president has sought — although they will feel mounting pressure to do so.
In the last few weeks of the session, Republicans will use threats of military cutbacks and layoffs to push Democrats to provide some of the $196.4 billion in war money the president wants for fiscal 2008.
But the factors driving Democrats to withhold the funding appear to be, for now, more numerous and powerful. Lawmakers' sway over the money is their only leverage over White House war policy. What's more, a majority of Americans, and almost all the Democratic base, want U.S. troops home from Iraq.
"To some extent, it's a game of chicken," said Steven Kosiak, vice president for budgetary studies at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a defense think tank.
Even if Democrats were inclined to provide some of the money, writing a bill that would pass both chambers remains extremely difficult, especially with limited time before the holidays.
Nonetheless, both parties will have to compromise eventually because few politicians are willing to cut off funding for the war.
"You can paint pretty ugly scenarios if you don't actually get funding. But who will bear responsibility for that and how the public will perceive who will bear responsibility for that is an unknown," Kosiak said.
Congress has provided scant funding for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan so far for fiscal 2008 because Democrats are divided over what conditions to impose — and Republicans are united against attempts to legislate a change in policy.
On Nov. 14, the House passed, 218-203, a measure (HR 4156) that would provide about a quarter of the money the president asked for, or $50 billion. The partial funding in the so-called bridge bill also would require troop withdrawals to begin 30 days after enactment and would set a goal of Dec. 15, 2008, for withdrawing most combat troops.
The bill would prohibit the deployment of troops who are not fully trained and equipped and require all U.S. personnel, including member of the CIA, to follow the Army field manual's rules against torture.
Two days later, Senate Republicans blocked consideration of the bill; it fell seven votes short of the 60 needed to overcome the filibuster.
The Pentagon is borrowing money from other programs funded in the regular fiscal 2008 Defense spending bill (PL 110-116) to pay for war operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. But administration officials say that can only last until Feb. 23.
In the meantime, key programs will be shortchanged, from child care centers to "counselor services for returning soldiers and their families," according to an Army document.
Additionally, the military services will have to send notices in the coming weeks to up to 200,000 civilians and contractor personnel who could be furloughed in February, officials have said.
"Recovery will be measured in years," the Army document warns.
Many lawmakers in districts representing large Army and Marine Corps installations will begin to feel the pressure of those cutbacks and prospective layoffs, aides say.
More broadly, Democrats are sensitive to the charge they are not attuned to the needs of the military. Up to now, few Democrats have advocated cutting off funding for the Iraq War, much to the consternation of their base. This month, they will come under withering criticism from Republicans for denying the military the money it needs.
Already, those charges are coming from the White House and congressional Republican offices.
President Bush, in a Nov. 29 visit to the Pentagon, challenged Congress to provide the funding "without strings" by Christmas.
Later that day, Minority Leader John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, said in a statement: "When Congress returns to town next week, the games must end and we must fund our men and women in uniform."
Despite the calls for appropriating funds, the preponderance of pressure on Democrats appears for now likely to force them to withhold as much money as possible for as long as they can.
The public increasingly recognizes the progress made in security in Iraq, but 54 percent still want troops to come home, according to a November poll by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.
Among Democrats, opposition to the war is even stronger.
Even if there was an inclination among Democrats to provide the president's war funding sooner rather than later, the factors that blocked passage of such legislation in November remain.
The Senate blocked the bridge funds largely because the measure would have set withdrawal dates.
Several Democratic senators — including Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin of Michigan and Daniel K. Inouye of Hawaii — have said they believe the Senate will consider a less-restrictive version of the legislation this month.
Driving a Wedge?
House Democrats would never initiate legislation that lacked withdrawal dates or that dropped other conditions on torture or military readiness, members and aides have said.
But if the Senate were to pass a bill with few or no restrictions, the House would be under enormous pressure to vote on it as well — and it would pass because almost all Republicans would support it, aides said.
However, if Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., were to allow this, it would drive a wedge between him and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., aides said, because Pelosi does not want to pass a less-restrictive bill, particularly on the strength of a Republican majority.
John P. Murtha, D-Pa., chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense, told reporters Nov. 29 that House leaders might be willing to delay the withdrawal dates they have advocated until 2009 or later. But Pelosi's office denied that.
"The Speaker is still committed to the legislation passed by the House," said Nadeam Elshami, a Pelosi spokesman.
But as pressure on Democrats grows to fund the military programs that are being shortchanged to pay for the war, they could increase the Pentagon's ability to transfer funds among accounts, or provide by year's end some targeted spending for programs affected by the shifting of monies — possibly in a continuing resolution or omnibus appropriations bill, aides said.
What appears clear is that Congress will not provide for weeks — if not months into 2008 — the full $196.4 billion the president wants for the war. But they eventually will provide it and probably without most of the conditions Democrats would prefer, experts said.
"I think the Democrats are going to have to eat this one, again," said Eric Pierce, a fellow at the Center for New American Security, a left-leaning think tank.
By John M. Donnelly and Josh Rogin
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