A $105.9 billion wartime spending bill cleared Congress on Thursday, even as House Democrats only narrowly beat back new Republican attempts to block President Barack Obama from closing the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay.
Obama’s authority to relocate Gitmo detainees is already severely limited under the war-funding measure now on its way to his desk. But House Republicans sought to push him a big step further Thursday by proposing a flat ban on the Justice Department using any of the funds in its 2010 budget to implement Obama’s January executive order.
The amendment failed by just one vote, 213-212, with 39 Democrats deserting the administration. Going into the new 2010 appropriations season now, it was a stark reminder of how hard Republicans are willing to push on terrorism and security-related issues. And at one level, the White House was saved in the end only by the libertarian-minded Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), who broke with his party on the issue.
After passing the House narrowly Tuesday, the separate war funding bill sailed through the Senate 91-5. But it also had to overcome its own cliffhanger vote — this time on the last-minute addition of a four-month, $1 billion “cash-for-clunkers” initiative backed by the auto industry and hard-pressed dealers.
The money was inserted in the final House-Senate negotiations last week without prior debate in either chamber, and New Hampshire Sen. Judd Gregg, the ranking Republican on the Senate Budget Committee, had served notice that he would seek to strike the funding as a violation of Senate rules barring such extraneous items.
“The hypocrisy of it is so extraordinary that it can’t even be described,” Gregg said, noting that Democrats added the new expenditure within hours of appearing at the White House to embrace “pay-as-you-go” deficit reduction legislation. Beyond the expense, environmentalists said the proposal sets too low a threshold in terms of fuel savings, since a consumer could qualify for a $3,500 voucher simply by buying a car that saves 4 more miles per gallon of gasoline.
Many Democrats were themselves critical of the initiative on this point, and as the galleries watched, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) moved in and out of the cloakroom and across the Senate floor mustering the last votes. Prominent Democrats including Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom Harkin of Iowa and Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry of Massachusetts withheld their votes until late, and Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) was persuaded to reverse her earlier “no” vote.
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With his tally still at 59, Reid turned to Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who has co-sponsored an alternative auto modernization plan with higher environmental standards. Collins told POLITICO later that Reid had already pledged to push for a tougher approach if Congress should extend the program past November, but she said the more decisive issue was his fear that that further changes now would put the war funding bill in jeopardy by requiring another close vote in the House.
“The deciding factor for me was that Sen. Reid told me that he did not believe that the House would accept the change in the bill,” Collins said. “And I was very worried about delaying money to our troops.”
Whatever the reason, the outcome was good news for the White House, which has had to struggle mightily over the past week to overcome earlier missteps in its handling of the bill. The measure is vital to Obama’s increased military commitments to Afghanistan and Pakistan. But it left bruised feelings in the House over the administration’s penchant for a top-down approach to sensitive issues, and Obama put Democrats at a big disadvantage by waiting until late to ask lawmakers to add billions in new financing for the International Monetry Fund.
Matched against this is the extraordinary gap between Senate and House Republicans in their approach to the same war funding measure.
The Senate approved the IMF money in May with Republican help, and all but three Republicans voted Thursday for passage of the bill. By comparison, in Tuesday’s House vote, only five Republicans supported the measure, held back by their leadership as a protest against the inclusion of the IMF funding.
“The House Republican leadership took their members on a wild goose chase,” one administration official told POLITICO. “How would you feel to be a Republican in a marginal House district, your leaders tell you to vote against funding for the troops and your Republican senator votes for the same bill? Where’s the political cover? What’s the strategy?”
House Republicans insist they are content with their approach. But they betray some discomfort by raising what critics say is a false argument: that defense funding in the initial House bill was cut in House-Senate negotiations in order to make room for the IMF funds.
Senate Republicans dispute this, as do Democrats involved in the negotiations. And while reductions were made in the normal course of the two houses bridging their differences, there is little evidence that these adjustments were driven by the addition of IMF funds.
“I don’t know what happened in the conference, but it makes our argument easier,” said Rep. Buck McKeon (R-Calif.), the new ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee. When questioned by a reporter, California Rep. Jerry Lewis, the ranking Republican on the House Appropriations Committee, laughed: “I have to go with what I have.”
Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), who personally oversaw the defense negotiations, is less accepting.
“The suggestion that there was a link between the amount appropriated for defense and the $5 billion appropriated for the IMF is simply not supported by the facts,” he told POLITICO. “The final defense figure roughly split the difference between the Senate and the House versions. ... It is $4 billion above the administration’s request and the Senate recommendation. It reflects a good-faith compromise between the two Houses as negotiated by the Defense subcommittee managers.”
“The decision to support the administration’s IMF request was completely unrelated to the negotiations with the House over the defense parts of the supplemental and had no bearing on the final figure,” he continued. “The IMF was an add-on, not a substitution.”
Going forward now into 2010, the big question is whether the heightened partisanship seen in the House will remain as a hang-over.
Certainly Thursday suggested as much. Republicans tortured the majority through the day by forcing repetitive votes to slow progress on a $64.3 billion measure funding the Departments of Commerce and Justice and major science agencies for the new fiscal year.
The bill finally passed 259-157 in the evening, the first of the dozen annual 2010 appropriations bills to clear either chamber this year. But one result of all the posturing is real issues — some of great importance to Republican lawmakers — get lost in the fray.
One such case is a bitter environmental battle over California’s water supplies and a federal order that has severely affected irrigation pumps important to already stressed farm communities in the San Joaquin Valley. Thirty-seven Democrats joined 171 Republicans on a failed attempt to block a recent environmental order by the Obama administration, but the 218-208 vote was close enough to guarantee more attempts in the future.
“This is not going to go away, and it’s going to get way worse,” said Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), who predicted that, without some relief, 1 milion acres of farmland could be affected. But virtually all the debate was crowded into Wednesday night, since Thursday was devoted to voting — all day.