WASHINGTON — With their ranks infused with anti-war sentiment, Democrats controlling the House were struggling Thursday for a way to both finance President Barack Obama's Afghanistan troop surge and salvage their dwindling jobs agenda.
Pressure to act before the Fourth of July has House leaders like Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., scrambling to find the mix of war money and stimulus money that could attract Democratic votes Thursday evening. [See who donates to Pelosi's campaign.]
The House measure is anchored by money for the war and Democrats are likely to add funding for other programs not connected to military needs.
The Senate passed Obama's $37 billion war funding request in May, but House leaders have been short of solutions — and votes.
The delays have eroded any leverage House Democrats might have had in their dealings with the Senate and the White House, which are pressing the House to accept an almost $60 billion Senate measure that blends the war funding request with money for disaster aid accounts, foreign aid and disability benefits for Vietnam veterans exposed to Agent Orange.
Even if passed, the House measure has been promised a cold shoulder from Senate Republicans, who have the votes to filibuster it if the measure went to the Senate. The prospect of further deadlock and delays in providing troop funds has Democrats like Earl Pomeroy of North Dakota pressing House leaders to simply accept the bipartisan Senate measure so that it can be promptly signed by Obama.
"There's a difference between passing and enacting," Pomeroy said. "And it's time we enact something."
But top Democrats such as Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey of Wisconsin are pressing to add $10 billion to help revenue-starved school boards avoid teacher layoffs and $5 billion to address a shortfall of Pell Grants funding for low-income college students.
Black lawmakers are pressing for add-ons of their own, including a $1 billion summer jobs initiative and money to pay discrimination claims by black farmers against the Agriculture Department. There's also money to pay claims related to the government's management and accounting of more than 300,000 trust accounts of American Indians.
But Republicans supportive of the Afghanistan effort are promising to vote against the war funding if it's accompanied by more non-war spending, which means Democrats would have to pass it with the support of anti-war lawmakers.
Rep. John Yarmuth, D-Ky., who gave Obama the benefit of the doubt in a comparable Afghanistan war vote last year, says he's voting "no" this time around.
"It's become more and more evident to me that there isn't a clearly defined mission," Yarmuth said. [See who donates to Yarmuth's campaign.]
But Republicans supportive of the war effort are promising to vote against the bill because of the non-war additions.
"To be using the Afghan issue, the war fighters, the military as pawns ... it's like no respect at all for the military," said Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon of California, top Republican on the Armed Services Committee. "This should have been passed a long time ago."
The GOP opposition comes despite almost $12 billion in spending cuts to finance the new initiatives, including money cut from last year's stimulus measure and $500 million cut from the Education Department's showcase Race to the Top grant program — with the latter move earning a public rebuke from the White House.
"We do not believe that taking money out of that important investment makes any sense at all. The president's been clear with Congress that that doesn't make any sense at all," said Press Secretary Robert Gibbs.
Unspent defense funds would also be cut, along with highway spending authority and money from community development and rural Internet projects.
The new Democratic spending 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 security initiatives along the U.S.-Mexico border — 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 the August recess. Still, pressure is mounting on Democrats to release the war funds so that the Pentagon doesn't have to employ painful bookkeeping maneuvers to maintain the war effort.