House Democratic leaders are putting together the largest Iraq war spending bill yet, a measure that is expected to fund the war through the end of the Bush presidency and for nearly six months into the next president's term.
The bill, which could be unveiled as early as this week, signals that Democrats are resigned to the fact they can't change course in Iraq in the final months of President Bush's term. Instead, the party is pinning its hopes of ending the war on winning the White House in November.
Bay Area lawmakers, who represent perhaps the most anti-war part of the country, acknowledge the bill will anger many voters back home.
"It's going to be a tough sell to convince people in my district that funding the war for six months into the new president's term is the way to end the war," said Rep. Lynn Woolsey, D-Petaluma, a leader of the Out of Iraq Caucus who plans to oppose the funding. "It sounds like we are paying for something we don't want."
The bill is expected to provide $108 billion that the White House has requested for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Lawmakers who are drafting it say it also will include a so-called bridge fund of $70 billion to give the new president several months of breathing room before having to ask Congress for more money.
The debate is shaping up as a key test for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
The San Francisco Democrat, who opposed the war from the start, faces fierce criticism from the anti-war left for refusing to cut off funding for the war. She's trying to hold together a caucus split between anti-war lawmakers, who'd prefer a showdown with the White House, and conservative Democrats, who believe cutting off the war funding would make the party look weak on national security and put its majority at risk.
Pelosi is plotting a "guns-for-butter" strategy to try to force Bush to accept some new domestic spending in exchange for the money he needs to fight the war. The speaker is floating a proposal to extend unemployment benefits for 13 weeks for those whose benefits have run out. The package also could include a new GI Bill benefit to help veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan pay for college.
Bush is already vowing to veto any spending that goes over his $108 billion request. House Republicans, eager for an election-year fight with Democrats over spending, are pledging to back up his veto threat.
"We're going to insist that this is about funding the troops and nothing else," House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, said last week.
Pelosi has been trying to ease tensions within her caucus over the bill. Anti-war lawmakers - including Woolsey, Rep. Maxine Waters of Los Angeles and Rep. Barbara Lee of Oakland - met with the speaker last week to urge her to keep the votes on war spending and domestic spending separate.
"We raised concerns," Lee said. "It just wouldn't make sense to force (members of Congress) to choose between providing food stamps for people who are hurting and need help during this terrible time and funding an occupation that people do not support."
House leaders may be able to get around the issue by splitting the votes. Last May, Democrats used a similar tactic, staging votes on two amendments - one for $22 billion in domestic spending, and another for $98 billion for the two wars - to allow anti-war lawmakers to vote for the domestic spending, but against the money for the war.
The strategy would let many Democratic lawmakers register their opposition to the war, but it wouldn't change the outcome. The Senate would eventually wrap all the spending into one package to send to the White House for Bush's signature.
Democrats may use the bill to put Republicans on the defensive by offering an amendment to boost tax incentives for renewable energy as well as language that would block the administration from implementing new rules that would cut Medicaid payments and shift those costs to the states.
House leaders also may introduce an amendment that would require Bush to use any new war money only for redeploying U.S. troops from Iraq. Bush vetoed a bill with similar language last year and Democrats lacked the votes to override it. Still, Democrats say it would remind voters that it's Bush and Republicans who are refusing to end the war.
But anti-war activists say Democrats are being disingenuous by claiming to oppose the war while also preparing to give the president even more war funding than he requested.
"They are the biggest hypocrites in the world," said Medea Benjamin, the San Francisco-based founder of the anti-war group CodePink. "They want to paint the Republicans as warmongers and they want to keep funding the war, and they think we don't see through this?"
Bay Area anti-war activists met at Oakland's Grand Lake Theater last week to discuss ways to protest the war spending bill. CodePink plans to renew its protests outside Pelosi's home in San Francisco and at lawmakers' offices, Benjamin said.
Pelosi on hot seat
Pelosi was pressed on the issue last week during a sit-down with CNN's Larry King. "Your party became the majority in the House primarily pledging to end the war," King said. "That didn't happen."
"No," Pelosi acknowledged. "It didn't happen because we had hoped that the president would listen to the will of the people and at least be willing to compromise on ... how the war is conducted and some timetable for redeployment of our troops."
Congress watchers said Democrats are still stung after losing repeated battles with the White House and Republicans over the war last year.
"Last year they tried a lot of confrontation and they went nowhere," said Louis Fisher, a constitutional scholar at the Library of Congress and an expert on congressional war powers. He said Democrats still fear being portrayed as putting U.S. troops at risk if they try to shut off war funds.
"That argument seems to win almost every time," Fisher said. "Look how long it took to cut off the funding in Vietnam. It wasn't until the summer of 1973."
Congressional scholar Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution said House leaders are making a wise choice to give a new president, whether Democrat or Republican, some time to chart a new course in Iraq. He noted that even the Democratic presidential candidates, Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton, have said it would take a few months to begin withdrawing troops.
Democrats in Congress may risk frustrating their base by funding the war into next year, but Mann said it's unlikely to hurt them in the November election. The public still generally sees the Iraq conflict as Bush's war, he said.
"This only becomes a Democratic war if a Democratic president fails to deliver on his or her promise to end the war," Mann said.
E-mail Zachary Coile at firstname.lastname@example.org.
© 2008 The San Francisco Chronicle