House-Senate negotiators reached agreement on a $105.9 billion wartime spending bill late Thursday after last-minute assurances that President Barack Obama will use all his powers to prevent the disclosure of controversial photographs depicting the treatment of detainees held by the U.S. military.
White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel came to the Capitol in the evening to personally deliver this message to Democratic senators, and Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) later read aloud a letter from Obama pledging to use every “legal and administrative remedy” available to prevent the disclosure of the pictures.
The underlying bill is vital to Obama’s foreign policy agenda as well as major domestic needs such as advanced funding to cope with the threat of pandemic flu next winter. But the administration has stumbled repeatedly and more than ever has found itself whipsawed by not just Republicans but also the Democratic left.
Central to Thursday’s drama was a Senate amendment adopted with little debate but designed to frustrate efforts by the American Civil Liberties Union in federal courts to force the release of the photos.
Democratic leaders had already decided that the provision should be dropped because of liberal opposition to any tampering with the Freedom of Information Act. And House negotiators upheld this position on a 5-3 vote.
But after caucusing with his colleagues, Inouye suddenly was hesitant to go forward. The talks abruptly recessed, prompting Emanuel’s arrival soon after.
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In a reversal of earlier statements, Obama has already come out against the release of the photos, and the administration has said it will take the case — now in the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals — next to the Supreme Court. In fact, the White House won a favorable ruling from the court Thursday, giving it added time. But Republicans and an increasing number of Democrats are urging that Obama use his executive powers to designate the photos as classified and therefore protected under secrecy laws.
Leading the charge has been Obama’s old rival, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who went to the Senate floor Thursday, saying it was time for the president to “stand up to the left wing in his party.” But no less than Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) later told reporters flatly: “The pictures are not going to be released,” regardless of what is in or out of the war funding bill.
Inouye refused comment on any recommendations he has made to the administration but signaled that he might welcome such a decision. “There are only a few options, and the White House has to decide,” said one leadership aide.
In many respects, the dicey politics all go back to the administration’s insistence that the same war funding bill be used to carry billions in new financing for the International Monetary Fund. Obama personally pledged the funding at an international meeting in April, but it has turned into a political nightmare for the White House and Democratic allies, given the political crosscurrents in the House.
Republicans are threatening to withhold their votes for the final package now, which includes the IMF funding. And this means that Obama and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) have had to try to win back some of the 51 anti-war Democrats who opposed the war funding when it first passed the House in May.
It became imperative then, politically, to drop the Senate photo amendment, which was seen by many liberals as an intrusion on the Freedom of Information Act. But underscoring the debate has been a real anxiety among many Democrats over Obama’s increased military commitment to Afghanistan and a new U.S. partnership with its neighbor Pakistan.
These tensions were seen again Thursday in House debate on a parallel Foreign Afairs bill demanding that the administration come forward this summer with a more comprehensive plan for the long-term “security and stability” of Pakistan while also demanding greater accountability from Islamabad as well.
“We appreciate the urgency of the situation in Pakistan and the need for appropriate flexibility,” said House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Howard Berman (D-Calif.). “We are simply asking Pakistan to follow through with the commitments it has already made. If the president is unable to make these determinations, then we should be asking ourselves much deeper questions about what we really hope to achieve in Pakistan.”
The level of assistance is substantial. The combined military and economic aid in the package for Afghanistan is close to $5 billion, and Pakistan’s portion could exceed $3 billion, counting funds it also receives as a coalition partner facilitating U.S. operations in Afghanistan.
Most striking is the level of funds to begin a greatly expanded U.S. role in the training and equipping of Pakistani troops who will be asked to carry out more counterinsurgency operations against Taliban forces operating in their country and along the border with Afghanistan. This aid will move first through the Department of Defense but later the State Department in two installments, totaling $1.1 billion by Oct. 1.