Democrats controlling Congress sent the most explicit signals yet on Thursday that they are resigned to providing additional funding for the war in Iraq before Congress adjourns for the year.
Conceding that President Bush is in a strong position as Congress seeks to wrap up its work, Democrats are cooking up a pre-Christmas endgame that would deliver tens of billions of dollars for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan on conditions acceptable to the White House.
The Iraq funding would ultimately be attached by Bush's Senate GOP allies to a $500 billion-plus "omnibus" appropriations bill taking shape in closed-door talks. That's the only way they would let the measure advance through the Senate.
House Democratic leaders, though hardly enthusiastic about the idea, recognize it is the only way for Democrats to have a chance to wrap up their long-unfinished budget work and adjourn just before Christmas.
"I anticipate at some point in time that will be the case," said House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., when asked if Congress would ultimately vote on Iraq funding without a timetable for withdrawing U.S. troops.
Hoyer acknowledged Democrats are considering a legislative two-step in which the House would initially pass the catch-all spending bill next week without Iraq funding attached. But the Senate would add the money — as the only way to avoid a GOP filibuster — and House Democrats would reluctantly accept it.
Such a solution would prevent weeks of Democrat-bashing by Bush for failing to provide additional money for U.S. troops in harm's way in Iraq.
Under a bill that Democrats passed through the House last month, Bush would get $50 billion for Iraq and Afghanistan operations, but only if he agrees to strings such as setting a Dec. 15, 2008 target date for withdrawing combat forces. Bush has sought a total of $196 billion for the budget year that began Oct. 1, but Republicans are resigned to winning far less now; a recent Senate GOP plan was for a $70 billion infusion.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., would not concede Thursday that Democrats would go along with new Iraq money. She instead suggested that Democrats would provide additional money for Afghanistan operations and some domestic military requirements.
Perhaps $30 billion is at issue, but under Pentagon accounting rules, some of the funds could be used to support Iraq troop deployments, with the aim of easing financial strains at the Pentagon that threaten civilian Pentagon contractors with pre-Christmas warnings of February layoffs.
GOP leaders promise that Republicans will sustain any veto of a Democratic spending bill, and they came away from a White House meeting Tuesday optimistic that Bush would stick to his position.
"I am confident that the president is going to . . . hold the line on spending and hold it firm," Boehner said.
"This is the spending fight we've anticipated all year," Blunt said. "There's no reason to lay down a winning hand."
In the Senate, leaders in both parties are trying for an old-fashioned deal on a catch-all measure that would allow both sides to claim victory. Bush's chief of staff, Joshua Bolten, met Wednesday with top congressional leaders, including Hoyer, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and GOP Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.
Funds without strings
McConnell is a longtime member of the clubby Senate Appropriations Committee. Lawmakers on the committee are viewed with distrust by hard-line conservatives seeking to use the budget battle to restore the Republican Party's tarnished reputation on spending.
"Obviously, the White House wants sufficient funds for the troops in Iraq, without strings," said departing Senate GOP Whip Trent Lott of Mississippi. "The president isn't going to go along with an excessive spending package. He understands that some additional spending could possibly be agreed to."
Democrats' desire to complete their budget work is helping drive their retreat.
Cementing GOP leverage, Senate Republicans are poised to filibuster any omnibus bill that fails to contain Iraq funds. It takes 60 votes to break a filibuster in the Senate, which Democrats control by just one vote.
"The fact of the matter is that Harry Reid cannot get 60 votes for any omnibus or appropriations bill without some agreement on (Iraq)," Hoyer told reporters. "He's told me that."
Common wisdom holds that Bush eventually will prevail, just as he did last spring. But Republicans vow to avoid a repeat in which Democrats win funding for domestic programs at the same time war funding advances. Such domestic add-ons totaled $20 billion in May.
"We're not going to have a repeat of what happened before Memorial Day," Boehner said.