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Obey Makes Rare DC Connection Between Domestic Spending and War Funding

Rep. Dave Obey Slows War Funding

by David Rogers

WASHINGTON - House Appropriations Chairman Dave Obey said he will hold off on new Afghanistan war funding until there is some resolution of a long-delayed economic relief bill extending aid to states and the jobless as well as tax breaks for individuals and business.

House Appropriations Chairman Dave Obey is directly linking progress on the war bill with the pace of decisions on domestic priorities. (Reuters) With a July 4th Pentagon deadline looming, the chairman's new posture is a blow to the White House and more than ever, explicitly links war funding with liberal concerns over domestic priorities.

The so-called "extenders" bill-now bogged down in the Senate-carries with it $24 billion that Democrats want to help cash-strapped states meet their Medicaid payments next year. At the same time, Obey has been struggling to add up to $10 billion to the war funding bill to help local school districts avert the threat of teacher layoffs this coming fall.

"I want to wait until the extenders bill is resolved," Obey told POLITICO of the war funding measure "All I can do is sit and wait until reality strikes home, and then maybe we'll get somewhere."

The chairman's stance-outlined in a short interview Monday evening- is significant for two reasons.

First, Obey is directly linking progress on the war bill with the pace of decisions on domestic priorities. Second, the resulting delay threatens to aggravate an already difficult political situation for President Barack Obama, who faces growing skepticism over his Afghan policy.

Ultimately the Pentagon is confident it will get its $33 billion request. But going into the November elections, Obama had hoped to avoid an embarrassing split with his party over war funding-bringing back echoes of Lyndon Johnson's Vietnam. Now even strong supporters of the U.S. policy are expressing concern about the worsening tone of the war funding fight.

"It is a very difficult situation," said Rep. Norm Dicks (D-Wash.), second to Obey and chairman of the House Appropriations defense panel. "I'm worried, I must say."

As for Obey himself, there's no hiding his skepticism. "It is a huge problem for me," he said of the increased military commitments. "Let me put it this way. I am confused and I have a right to be," he said.

Now in his last months in Congress and a fierce advocate of education, his tougher stand reflects a growing frustration with the White House and conservatives in his own House Democratic caucus over the need to avert the threat of teacher layoffs.

With the support of Education Secretary Arne Duncan, the chairman has proposed adding funds to the war funding package as passed already by the Senate. In recent days, he has whittled back his proposal from $23 billion to about $10 billion and has been shopping different options pay for this with offsets from defense and some of the administration's own priorities in the giant Recovery Act last year.

Obey has been most out front as the point man in this backroom battle, but has had strong backing thus far from Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and is closely aligned with speaker's friend, House Education and Labor Committee Chairman George Miller (D-Calif.).

Obama sought to defuse some of the tensions with a letter this past weekend in which he endorsed both the added education funds as well as the $24 billion for Medicaid. But the letter-released Saturday night with advance leaks to Sunday papers- was greeted with open scorn by many liberals who saw it as another White House publicity stunt..

Miller told POLITICO that there is genuine real fear among Democrats that states like his own will have significant layoffs of public employees in the run up to November's elections. And after coming late to the fight, he said the White House now was looking for political cover if the forecasts prove true.

"So what is this, `We asked Congress to do this in June?'" he said of the Obama letter. "Well we asked them to do it in December."

By waiting as he now proposes, Obey could be in a stronger decision if the Senate were to reject the Medicaid funds. At one level, the two aid proposals-Medicaid and teachers-have been in competition with one another given concerns now about the deficit. If Medicaid fails, Obey might be able to win over reluctant Democrats by pointing out that his spending package is offset with revenues and also deals with a more immediate crisis.

Then again, he is frustrated too that the White House - even with Obama's letter - has yet to send up a budget request.

"The letter is nice," the chairman said. "We still don't have an official budget request."

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