WASHINGTON — Despite pessimism that the war in Afghanistan is turning out to be a quagmire, Democrats controlling the House muscled through a plan Thursday to finance President Barack Obama's troop surge, but only after sweetening the measure with last-ditch moves to salvage their faltering jobs agenda.
Long delayed, the approximately $80 billion bill was passed amid building pressure on Democrats to act before their weeklong Fourth of July break begins. But the Senate approved a significantly slimmer measure in May and it'll take additional weeks to reconcile the differences between the two battling chambers.
The crucial vote to advance the measure under unusually convoluted floor rules came on a 215-210 tally to bring up the nearly $60 billion Senate-passed measure for debate. Democrats added more than $20 billion for domestic programs late Thursday, including $10 billion in grants to school districts to avoid teacher layoffs, $5 billion for Pell Grants to low-income college students and $700 million to improve security along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Black lawmakers won add-ons of their own, including a $1 billion youth summer jobs initiative and money to pay discrimination claims by black farmers against the Agriculture Department
The White House weighed in with a veto threat over $800 million in cuts to education programs. The cuts would be used to help pay for the additional domestic spending, which was sought by top Democrats such as Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey of Wisconsin. The move infuriated Obey, who acidly pointed out that he had drafted legislation last year that contained the money and that even with the $800 billion cut, more than $3 billion would be left over.
The $60 billion Senate-passed measure blends $30 billion for the influx of 30,000 troops into Afghanistan with money for disaster aid accounts, foreign aid and disability benefits for Vietnam veterans exposed to Agent Orange.
The Senate passed it in May, but House leaders spent weeks trying to solve the puzzle of how to pass it over the reservations of an increasing number of anti-war House Democrats. The delays have eroded whatever leverage House Democrats may have in upcoming dealings with the Senate and the White House, which seem to want the war funding bill signed into law as soon as possible.
The House measure will receive a cold reception from Senate Republicans, who would have the votes to filibuster it, according to Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi, a senior Republican whose support was central to Senate passage.
House Republicans supportive of the Afghanistan effort voted against the measure, angered that Democrats were using the must-pass legislation to try to advance unrelated spending.
"The Democrat majority is treating this troop funding bill like a cash-cow for their election-year wish-list," said Rep. Jerry Lewis, R-Calif.
But top Democrats such as Obey and Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., insisted on adding the domestic dollars, viewing the war funding bill as their last, best shot to resuscitate their faltering jobs agenda. The money was critical to winning support from Democrats frustrated over deepening Senate gridlock that has killed, among other ideas, $24 billion in aid to cash-starved states to help governors avoid tens of thousands of layoffs.
The measure came to the floor under a remarkably convoluted process designed to allow lawmakers to avoid a direct up or down vote on the entire bill. A successful vote Thursday evening to begin debate essentially approved the war money, but the measure officially passed only after the domestic money was mixed in.
The GOP opposition required Democratic leaders such as Pelosi to round up votes from anti-war lawmakers.
"Every dollar we spend in Afghanistan, every life we waste there, is a waste," said Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., who backed the measure anyway in the crucial vote to bring it up for debate. "An intelligent policy is not to try to remake a country that nobody since Genghis Khan has managed to conquer. What makes us think, what arrogance gives us the right to assume that we can succeed where the Moguls, the British, the Soviets failed?"
Obey came up with almost $12 billion in spending cuts to finance the new initiatives, including money cut from last year's economic stimulus measure and $500 million cut from the Education Department's showcase Race to the Top grant program. The cut in Race to the Top earned a public rebuke from the White House and a veto threat as well.
"We do not believe that taking money out of that important investment makes any sense at all," press secretary Robert Gibbs said.
Unspent defense funds would also be cut, along with highway spending authority and money from community development and rural Internet projects. The cutbacks, and other steps, brought the deficit cost of the measure down to about $60 billion.
The new Democratic spending, approved by a 239-182 vote, includes a $10 billion "education jobs fund" that's less than half of a $23 billion plan unveiled this spring. Amid growing violence along the U.S.-Mexico border, there's also $700 million in new money to hire more border patrol agents and pay for other border security initiatives, though $200 million in previously appropriated money for a border fence, popular with Republicans, would be rescinded.
And there's $18 billion in new Energy Department loan guarantees, to be evenly split between nuclear and renewable energy projects.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates has been agitating for the war money, requested in February, but the real deadline for Congress isn't until its August recess.
Still, the delays in approving the war funds will mean the Pentagon will have to employ burdensome bookkeeping maneuvers to maintain the war effort.