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Dems plan aid for veterans, jobless in war bill

/ Source: The Associated Press

House Democratic leaders have a plan to try to add extended unemployment benefits and new education funding for veterans to President Bush's war funding bill while dropping lots of other party priorities.

The plan faces its first test Thursday when Democrats meet behind closed doors to discuss it.

Facing a veto threat, Democrats such as Speaker Nancy Pelosi don't want to try to add billions of dollars for roads, bridges and other ideas such as heating subsidies for the poor and increases in food stamp benefits.

Capitol Hill Democratic aides said Wednesday that Pelosi's plan was tentative and had not won acceptance from rank and file lawmakers, much less party leaders in the Senate.

Still, it was a sign that Democrats want to avoid loading up the war funding bill with everything but the kitchen sink and lose a veto and public relations clash with the president, who insists lawmakers keep his bill free of add-ons.

More palatable funding
Bush is certain to oppose the effort, which would add to the war spending legislation a $12.7 billion plan to give 13 additional weeks of unemployment checks to people whose benefits have run out and 13 weeks beyond that in states with especially high unemployment rates. He's also likely to oppose the even more expensive plan for higher GI Bill benefits for veterans.

But the plan would make it more palatable for anti-war Democrats to provide money until the next president takes office.

Bush has promised to veto any bill that exceeds his pending $108 billion request to fund U.S. military and diplomatic efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan. It's a tougher line than he took last spring, when he accepted about $17 billion in domestic funding as part of a $120 billion war funding measure.

Democrats are in fact planning on not only providing the $108 billion to fund the war through the Sept. 30, the end of the 2008 budget year, but they're likely to add another $70 billion for next year so they don't have to vote on war funding again in the fall election season.

But the hard line from the White House has Democrats scaling back plans to use the must-pass bill as an engine to carry everything from a summer jobs programs to a Senate proposal for $10 billion for infrastructure projects such as roads, bridges and new schools.

Republicans are eager for a battle with Democrats over add-ons to the war funding bill. Despite record low approval ratings and his status as a lame duck, Bush has to be rated as a clear favorite in any veto battle.

"If the president stands his ground on this he'll win," House GOP Whip Roy Blunt, R-Mo., said. "And I believe he's prepared to stand his ground and we'll stand with him."

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., told reporters Wednesday that proposals that don't make it into the war spending bill may instead be carried by a second economic stimulus bill. That's where the unemployment benefit extension ultimately may wind up anyway, assuming Bush carries out his veto threat.

The tentative bill also would carry a plan to block new Bush administration regulations that would cut federal spending on Medicaid health care for the poor by $13 billion over the next five years. That bill passed the House Wednesday by an overwhelming 349-62 vote despite a Bush veto threat.

Money to fight wildfires in the West — backed by many GOP allies of the president — also would make it into the measure, the aides said, as would additional help for victims of Hurricane Katrina. The wildfire funds could total about $400 million, while the state of Louisiana wants to ease current requirements that it put up 35 percent of the funds for a multibillion-dollar project to rebuild levees around New Orleans.