Some House Democratic leaders are considering plans to quietly fund the Iraq war while trying to minimize the political fall-out.
One of the latest proposals under discussion involves putting $30 billion in a nearly-completed omnibus spending bill that would be earmarked for the war in Afghanistan, but could freely be used for operations in Iraq.
According to Hill sources, Rep. David Obey, D-WI, who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, initially pushed the Afghanistan funding idea. Top House Democrats Steny Hoyer (D-MD) is said to support the idea, while Speaker Nancy Pelosi has argued against it. But in an interview on Thursday, she acknowledged that "there probably will be some level of [money] addressing Afghanistan" in the omnibus.
"Democratic leadership is considering this as a way to get the White House off their backs," said one Hill staffer with knowledge of the legislative proposal. "If the money isn't required to go only to Afghanistan then the president is going to do with it what he pleases."
Among Democrats who favor a less confrontational approach with the White House, the idea is highly regarded for several reasons: Democrats will be funding what is perceived within the party as "the good war," while also preempting White House criticism that the Pentagon is being strapped for cash.
Critics describe it as another capitulation to President Bush, in the face of consistent and strong opposition to the war among the majority of Americans.
The Afghanistan funding proposal is not set in stone, and creative thinking is abound. Democratic lawmakers have thrown around the idea of linking specific funding levels to achievements by the Iraqi government, and of using war funds as leverage to get more money for domestic programs. They've even theorized ways of tying Iraq money to the reigning in of war profiteering.
But the problem, they note, is far greater than this one funding battle. Democrats simply believe they lack a mechanism for bringing the war to a halt.
"The problem you ultimately run into is where do you go from here? What's our endgame?" said an aide to a high-ranking Democratic congressman. "Even if we wait till the next president it is still going to take a year and half to get our troops out."
If Democrats proceed in attaching war funds - whether for Iraq, Afghanistan or both - to the omnibus spending bill, leadership will have increased its chances of circumventing a presidential veto. The omnibus includes budgets for eleven federal agencies. The President would be risking political backlash if he chose to forgo it in favor of a less cohesive continuing resolution. He may not even have the votes to do so. But attaching war funds to the omnibus also would require the Democrats to abandon the idea of a date certain withdrawal (or a goal to that effect) of troops from Iraq.
Currently, Congress and the White House are at a deadlock over how to fund the war. President Bush has asked for a $196 billion supplemental. Democratic leaders in the House and Senate responded with a $50 billion measure that had the goal of troop withdrawals by 2008. The line in the sand has yet to be crossed, though Democrats acknowledge feeling the heat.
"There is a lot of pressure from certain segments of the caucus to go ahead and advance the funding, " said a senior Democrat adviser. "The hope is that by doing something like this, it will buy us time with the President... The question is how long can we continue that going forward."