Monday, June 14, 2010
Obama faces messy war-funds fight
Politico by David Rogers With mixed signals from Kabul and an unhappy left at home, President Barack Obama risks an increasingly messy fight in Congress this month over new funding for U.S. military operations in Afghanistan. Obama moved over the weekend to try to reassure doubtful Democrats that he also supports new state aid to avert teacher layoffs and cuts in medical services. But the White House has yet to back up its words with formal budget requests, and Saturday night’s letter to House and Senate leaders — leaked in advance to maximize coverage in the Sunday newspapers — was greeted as more of a public relations ploy. “I’m asking myself, ‘Why is this coming up on a Saturday night?’” said House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) on ABC News’s “This Week.” Privately, congressional Democrats agreed. Senior House and Senate aides said they got no warning before Saturday evening. And the letter follows a week of increased tension with the White House over aid to education and complaints of double dealing in an effort to roll the House on the war funding. Last week also saw new evidence that the U.S. military campaign in southern Afghanistan is slowing, capped by a front-page New York Times report Saturday saying that Afghan President Hamid Karzai has lost faith that NATO can prevail over Taliban insurgents in his nation. Karzai’s office has since disputed this, according to an administration official. But the Afghan president remains an uncertain trumpet. And the continued divisions in his government — including the recent resignation of the respected director of intelligence, Amrullah Saleh — fuel doubts in Congress. For liberals who want to support Obama, the debate about war funding is aggravated by the fact that it would be an additional $33 billion-plus in deficit spending at a time when domestic needs are threatened. With only 60 Democratic defections, the administration in March trounced war critics in a House vote on its Afghanistan policy. But in the three months since, the White House has trimmed its sails on adding stimulus spending that liberals were counting on going into November’s elections. “At this critical moment, we cannot afford to slide backwards just as our recovery is taking hold,” Obama wrote in his letter Saturday. But Democrats complain that, almost like Karzai, the White House is sending conflicting signals. The most pointed case is a proposed $23 billion aid package for state and local school boards to avert the threat of layoffs because of budget cuts for the coming fiscal year. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has championed this so-called Teacher Firing Prevention Fund, urging that the money be added to the war funding bill. Obama himself says “the urgency is high” in his Saturday letter, but the White House has yet to submit a formal budget request and was conspicuously silent on the issue when the war funds were before the Senate last month. Now that the war bill has moved to the House, Appropriations Committee Chairman Dave Obey (D-Wis.) is threatening to go back into last year’s Recovery Act and cut from White House priorities to pay for the teachers. The Wisconsin Democrat appears to have the tacit support of Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), and their combined force may explain the sudden Saturday night letter. Appearing on ABC, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) seemed to suggest that the administration was open to this approach. But Obama’s letter doesn’t appear to address it directly, offering no offsets and speaking of the teachers’ aid as an “emergency.” The other big pressure point is a pending Senate debate over a larger jobs and economic-relief bill that includes $24 billion to help states pay their share of Medicaid, the joint federal-state health care program for the poor and disabled. Sixty votes will be needed, and in a reversal of their typical roles, House liberals hope Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) can restore the Medicaid funds after they were dropped in a last-minute deal engineered by Pelosi before Memorial Day. Failure to approve the Medicaid funds will not only affect 30 states that have already factored that money into their 2011 budgets but will add to the angst among House liberals over Obama’s costly Afghan policy. Republican governors, with their own stake in the fight, could help but are often mismatched with the Republican Senate moderates most likely to switch. A big test will come this week, when Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) rolls out for his party a major substitute bill that strips out the Medicaid funds but also promises to reduce Washington’s future deficits. The ambitious package, an election-year minefield, seems designed to fail because it takes on so many Democratic priorities in one swoop. But it does offer a route to restore long-term unemployment benefits for the jobless through November and addresses a crisis this month in Medicare reimbursements to physicians. Republican business allies will receive tax breaks without the painful reforms opposed by venture-capital and private-equity interests with influence in both parties. And, reopening the health care debate, Thune will propose saving $11 billion by lowering the threshold at which families are excused from getting coverage because the premiums are judged unaffordable. This also is a ticklish issue for Democrats, because those affected include middle- and working-class individuals important to the party’s political base. In past years, Republican moderates might vote for Thune’s substitute and then the Democratic bill as the last standing option. But the changed climate in Congress is such that nothing is guaranteed, and the fact that neither chamber has even voted on a budget plan for the coming year makes the chore harder. “If you believe they’re going to move a budget on the Hill, you must believe Elvis is still alive,” Boehner said. And while he and other Republican leaders have supported the war funding, it has become a tougher sell among rank-and-file party members. Twenty-six Senate Republicans — or more than half the party’s conference — opposed the measure when it passed the Senate last month. And this further constrains how far Obama can go to placate the left on domestic spending and still get his war funding through Congress.