The Senate Tuesday kicked off debate on legislation to add a grab bag of domestic programs to President Bush's war request, including work permits for immigrant farm labor and heating subsidies for the poor. The White House renewed its veto threat.
Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., brought up the add-ons in an unusual move designed to win their adoption — over opposition from the White House and GOP conservatives — before turning to companion legislation providing $165 billion to conduct military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan into next spring.
The bill before the Senate would add more than $28 billion to Bush's budget request for this year and next, with almost $50 billion more for a big expansion of veterans benefits under the GI Bill from 2010-2018.
Reid faces enormous procedural headaches in getting the war funding bill — and its various add-ons — passed this week. Democrats have divided the war funding bill into two components: non-war add-ons and Iraq funding and policy restrictions. Reid has signaled he wants the non-war extras to get a vote before the war funding itself, but it's a high-wire strategy.
"It is going to be extremely difficult for us to get from where we are today to completing this legislation," Reid said.
Senate Republicans seemed to suggest they'll let the add-ons advance to a Bush veto rather than filibustering them this week.
"Once the veto is sustained, we'll have a chance to figure out exactly how to actually enact this legislation and get the funding to the troops," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Tuesday.
The new GI Bill and Democratic priorities like extending unemployment benefits are among the big-ticket add-ons, both of which have drawn veto threats. There's also $50 million to track down child predators, $400 million to help rural schools and $350 million to fight western wildfires, just for starters.
Last spending bill before Election Day?
Senators are acting as if the war funding bill coming to the floor Tuesday is the last train leaving the station, and, as a result, have added billions of dollars for pet programs and hitched on several policy "riders" as well. Few if any other spending bills are likely to come before the Senate this election year, which makes the supplemental measure an even more attractive vehicle for carrying spending proposals that would otherwise stall.
The White House is fighting the add-ons much more vigorously than it did during last year's bruising war funding debate. Then, it accepted $17 billion in spending that Bush didn't ask for as the price for getting an Iraq war funding bill that didn't tie his hands on the war.
Now that it's clear that Democrats won't insist on a troop withdrawal timeline, the White House is focusing on making sure the measure doesn't exceed his request.
The Senate war funding bill combines $194.1 billion in spending over 2008-2009 for war funding, foreign aid, military base construction, heating subsidies and a variety of smaller items. Then there's $15.6 billion to give 13 weeks of unemployment checks to people whose benefits have run out and $51.6 billion over 10 years to improve GI Bill benefits.
The immigrant farm labor provision added to the measure at a hearing last week by Sens. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Larry Craig, R-Idaho, would allow almost 1.4 million immigrant farm workers to stay in the United States for up to five years to ease a shortage of farm workers that has left some crops rotting in the fields.
Sens. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., and Judd Gregg, R-N.H., followed that up with a provision to extend an expired program to allow seasonal workers to return to the country using H-2B visas.
Gregg, typically a fiscal conservative, voted with Democrats at last week's hearing to adopt $1 billion worth of additional energy subsidies for the poor. That provision led top Appropriations panel Republican Thad Cochran of Mississippi — himself the driving force behind more than $1 billion for Mississippi — to warn his colleagues that they were simply guaranteeing a Bush veto.
Still, Republicans such as Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas — a member of the Senate GOP leadership team — pressed ahead with add-ons of their own. Hutchison won approval of $100 million in grants for local law enforcement to fight drug trafficking along the U.S.-Mexico border.
It's the type of situation White House budget director Jim Nussle had in mind last month when he chided senators for a "sky-is-the-limit mind-set" regarding "the desire of some in Congress to load up this troop funding bill with tens of billions in additional spending."
Republican Sen. Kit Bond of Missouri moved to keep open three "veterans business resource centers" with $600,000 in taxpayer funds. One of the centers is in St. Louis; the others were in Flint, Mich., and Boston.