House spending bill, including $304 million related to oil spill, clears key hurdle


With their ranks infused with anti-war sentiment, Democrats controlling the House inched forward Thursday with a plan to both finance President Barack Obama’s Afghanistan troop surge and salvage their dwindling jobs agenda.

Long delayed, the measure came to the floor Thursday amid building pressure on Democrats to act before their weeklong Fourth of July break begins. Democrats were optimistic that the war funding measure would pass late Thursday after Democrats add billions of dollars for domestic programs such as $10 billion in grants to school districts to avoid teacher layoffs and money to improve security along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Passage appeared assured after the measure cleared a crucial 215-210 test vote Thursday evening.

But because the House measure is different than a Senate version that passed in May, Thursday’s developments meant delays in sending the measure to Obama for his signature; the Senate had packed up and left Washington on Wednesday.

The House supplemental spending bill also provides $304 million for measures related to the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, nearly twice as much as the Senate version:

Among the items:

• $130 million for unemployment insurance, employment referrals and training for self-employed workers, such as fishers, who don’t always qualify for these jobless benefits;

• $7 million for spill response activities, including scientific investigations and sampling;

• $14 million to respond to economic impacts on fishers;

• $10 million for Justice Department investigations into possible criminal liability for the spill.

• $5 million for economic recovery planning;

• $31 million for the Department of the Interior to conduct additional inspections and enforcement and to strengthen oversight and regulation and for the EPA to conduct a long-term risk study;

• $12 million for the White House commission investigating the oil spill. That’s $3 million less than requested by President Obama.

The White House weighed in Thursday with a veto threat over $800 million in cuts to education programs. The cuts would be used to help pay for the additional domestic spending, which was sought by top Democrats such as Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey of Wisconsin. The move infuriated Obey, who acidly pointed out that he had drafted legislation last year that contained the money and that even with the $800 billion cut, more than $3 billion would be left over.

The House measure is anchored by a nearly $60 billion Senate-passed measure that blends $30 billion for the influx of 30,000 troops into Afghanistan with money for disaster aid accounts, foreign aid and disability benefits for Vietnam veterans exposed to Agent Orange.

The Senate passed the measure in May, but House leaders have been short of solutions — and, until now, votes.

The delays have eroded whatever leverage House Democrats may have in upcoming dealings with the Senate and the White House, which seem to want the House to adopt the Senate measure to speed the war funding into law as soon as possible.

The House measure has been promised a cold shoulder from Senate Republicans, who would have the votes to filibuster it, according to Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi, a senior Republican whose support was central to Senate passage.

The prospect of further deadlock and delays in providing troop funds has Democrats like Rep. Earl Pomeroy of North Dakota pressing House leaders to simply accept the bipartisan Senate measure so it can be signed promptly by Obama.

“There’s a difference between passing and enacting,” Pomeroy said. “And it’s time we enact something.”

But top Democrats such as Obey and Speaker Nancy Pelosi are insisting on additional domestic spending, viewing the war funding bill as their last, best shot to resuscitate their faltering jobs agenda.

Black lawmakers won add-ons of their own, including a $1 billion summer jobs initiative, which is so delayed that it couldn’t be implemented this summer, and money to pay discrimination claims by black farmers against the Agriculture Department. They also added money to pay claims related to the government’s management and accounting of more than 300,000 trust accounts of American Indians.

The measure came to the floor under a remarkably convoluted process designed to allow lawmakers to avoid a direct up or down vote on the entire measure. The successful vote to begin debate essentially approved the war money. But the measure would officially pass only if one or more amendments are adopted; the most likely add-ons would add domestic money or require the administration to submit a plan to redeploy troops from Afghanistan.

Republicans supportive of the Afghanistan effort voted against the war funding in the test vote, angered that Democrats were using the must-pass measure to try to advance unrelated spending.

“To be using the Afghan issue, the war fighters, the military as pawns … it’s like no respect at all for the military,” said Rep. Howard McKeon of California, top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee. “This should have been passed a long time ago.”

The GOP opposition required Democratic leaders such as Pelosi to round up votes from anti-war lawmakers.

“Every dollar we spend in Afghanistan, every life we waste there, is a waste,” said Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y. “An intelligent policy is not to try to remake a country that nobody since Genghis Khan has managed to conquer. What makes us think, what arrogance gives us the right to assume that we can succeed where the Moguls, the British, the Soviets, failed?”

Obey came up with almost $12 billion in spending cuts to finance the new initiatives, including money cut from last year’s stimulus measure and $500 million cut from the Education Department’s showcase Race to the Top grant program. The cut in Race to the Top earned a public rebuke from the White House and the veto threat.

“We do not believe that taking money out of that important investment makes any sense at all,” press secretary Robert Gibbs said.

Unspent defense funds would also be cut, along with highway spending authority and money from community development and rural Internet projects.

The new Democratic spending includes a $10 billion “education jobs fund” that’s less than half of a $23 billion plan unveiled this spring. Amid growing violence along the U.S.-Mexico border, there’s also $700 million in new money to hire more border patrol agents and pay for other border security initiatives, though $200 million in previously appropriated money for a border fence, popular with Republicans, would be rescinded.

And there’s $18 billion in new Energy Department loan guarantees, to be evenly split between nuclear and renewable energy projects.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates has been agitating for the war money, requested in February, but the real deadline for Congress isn’t until its August recess.

Still, pressure is mounting on Democrats to release the war funds so the Pentagon doesn’t have to employ painful bookkeeping maneuvers to maintain the war effort.

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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