The administration remains confident it can navigate between the conflicting pressures from the right and left. But for this confident young White House, which so prides itself on juggling many balls at once, the delay is a humbling reminder of just how complex the low-profile appropriations process can be.
Obama himself faces growing criticism for piling on new requests and not doing more to support his demands. Privately, officials now concede that the budget calendar put them at a disadvantage, forcing the new administration to submit its funding requests in April, even before its policies could be fully formed.
This was most embarrassingly true in the case of Obama’s plan to close the Guantanamo detention center. But in a single stroke, the same appropriations bill affects wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a new alliance with Pakistan, the threat of pandemic flu, and complex civil liberties issues, such as whether the public should have access to damaging photos of post-Sept. 11 detainees held by the U.S. military.
“We’ll get through this,” one official told POLITICO. “But if we had had more time, it would have been prettier.”
The biggest immediate obstacle in the House is finding the right balance between the war funds in the bill and Obama’s addition of billions in new financing for the International Monetary Fund.
Republicans have threatened to bolt, with top leaders in open competition as to who can produce the most inflammatory press release. This puts the pressure on anti-war Democrats — 51 of whom opposed the bill last month — to step in and help Obama. But the same liberals, including prominent chairmen, were in open revolt Thursday over the White House’s handling of a Senate provision to bar the release of detainee photographs.
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Obama himself has argued that the pictures should not be released, and the administration gave its tacit blessing to the Senate language when it was inserted — without a roll call vote last month — by Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Sen. Joe Lieberman, the Connecticut independent. At a party whip meeting Thursday, top House Democrats warned the language must come out if Obama is to get his IMF funds. But to the surprise of its allies, the White House even Thursday wasn’t willing to commit to this option.
“I’ll swallow IMF, but I won’t vote to suspend Freedom of Information,” said Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.), who chairs the House Rules Committee and is close to Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). House Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank (D-Mass.), who has been Obama’s strongest House ally on the IMF issue, put the choice bluntly.
“They can have the IMF. They can’t have the IMF and no pictures,” Frank told POLITICO in his animated shorthand. “They certainly miscalculated on this pictures thing. I don’t know how the hell they thought that would work. The IMF drives away the Republicans. The pictures drive away the liberals you need. You have to choose.”
If Obama could cut his Republican losses on the IMF financing, he might have more options. As many as 12 Senate Republicans backed him last month, and the delay now gives the president time to make a final pitch to the House GOP when he returns from the Mideast and Europe.
But the conservative rhetoric has been so heated already, it won’t be easy getting converts. “This is lunacy,” House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) said of the IMF funds. And Frank was dismissive of Obama’s chances after his own frustrated attempt to engage moderates on the subject.
“The House Republicans are a lost cause,” Frank said in an interview. “I talked to some House Republicans who might be interested. They are now under the thumb of the right wing. They said, ‘I wish I could, but I can’t.’”
“The issue of IMF is one that I think has strong support on the Democratic side, not any support, we’re hearing, on the Republican side,” Pelosi told reporters Thursday. “I believe there are people in the Republican Party who support it. They just don’t want to support it on this bill. So we have to do that with all Democratic folks.”
Behind the scenes, the rockstar Bono and his ONE campaign, which is active on global economic issues, has stepped in with a letter supporting the IMF dollars. But winning over anti-war Democrats is not a done deal.
“I’m all for encouraging more investments in development ... but look, we’re talking about a war,” said Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), who is leery of Obama’s increased military commitments to Afghanistan and Pakistan. “I have a serious concern that we don’t have a clearly defined mission, no exit strategy, and I’m really worried about getting sucked into a war that has no end.”
In the course of floor debate last month, both the House and the Senate stripped out $80 million requested by Obama to begin the closing of Guantanamo. But the administration would still like to retain some flexibility to move detainees to foreign countries or into maximum security corrections facilities or military prisons in the U.S.
Draft language circulated this week would allow for moving prisoners into the U.S. after Congress has first had 45 days to review the certifications sent from the administration. But this faces stiff resistance still in the Senate, and a more likely compromise could be language simply setting a date by which a plan would have to be submitted by the White House — leaving Congress the option to then decide if a go-ahead should be authorized.
Both Obama and the Pentagon, with the largest stake in the war funding, had once hoped the bill could be enacted before Memorial Day. And the Appropriations leadership is anxious as well, since the House must soon turn its attention to the dozen annual spending bills for the new fiscal year that begins Oct. 1.
The first of these rolled out Thursday, covering the Commerce and Justice departments, as well as major science agencies. Four more are due next week, including for the Interior, Homeland Security and Agriculture departments.
Here, too, Obama’s luck isn’t holding — with his fellow Democrats.
Just weeks ago, the president offered a package of spending cuts and terminations that would have done away with the so-called State Criminal Alien Assistance Program within Justice, for a savings of $400 million in 2010.
California and Texas lawmakers immediately warned that their states are too reliant on the federal help to incarcerate criminal illegal immigrants; true enough, the House Appropriations panel Thursday settled for just a 25 percent cut that will keep the program alive with annual funding of $300 million.