The House approved the largest war-spending bill to date Thursday, bending to President Bush's call for $162 billion in war funding with no strings attached and giving his successor enough money to wage the wars until July 2009.
In exchange, Democrats won Bush's blessing for several of their domestic priorities, including a 13-week extension of jobless benefits for workers who have exhausted theirs, and a new GI bill benefit allowing veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars to attend a state college tuition-free.
The deal, negotiated between the White House and allies of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco, takes the issue of the war off Congress' plate for the rest of this election year. Lawmakers also intended to give the next president some time to set a new Iraq policy before having to return to Congress for more money.
But anti-war activists called it a betrayal by Democrats, who had pledged to end the war. Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Oakland, dubbed it "the biggest blank check ever." Rep. Lynn Woolsey, D-Petaluma, said the vote was a "profound disappointment to the millions of Americans who put Democrats into power hoping we could force a change in Iraq."
The House vote is likely to end almost two years of clashes between Democrats and the White House over the Iraq war, which Bush and Republicans have largely won.
House Democrats this spring once against approved a nonbinding measure calling for the withdrawal of all U.S. troops by June 2009. But the Senate, unable to get the 60 votes needed to pass it, stripped it from the spending bill. The war bill ping-ponged between the House and Senate for weeks until Pelosi and other top Democrats decided to cut a deal.
"I don't consider it a failure," Pelosi told reporters Thursday. "We never sent them a bill that did not have deadlines, conditions and the rest." She blamed Republicans in the Senate. "They are complicit with the president to make sure he never has to get a bill on his desk with a timeline, because the American people want a timeline," she said.
The House passed the legislation by splitting it in two pieces to accommodate anti-war Democrats who refused to vote for any more war funding. The first piece, on the war funding, passed 268-155, with support from 188 Republicans and 80 Democrats. The second part, which included the domestic spending increases, was approved with strong backing from both parties, 416-12.
The bill now goes to the Senate, where Democratic leaders say it's likely to be passed.
The deal required major concessions from both sides. Democrats were able to get the 13-week extension of jobless benefits, but had to drop their push for an additional 13 weeks of benefits for workers in high-unemployment states. Republicans also insisted that individuals must have worked for at least 20 weeks to qualify for the benefits.
The extended benefits will apply to all those who exhaust their aid between November 2006 and March 2009, an estimated 3.8 million workers nationwide.
The new education benefit for veterans, proposed by Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., who served in the Marines, would offer any veteran who served active duty for at least three years since Sept. 11, 2001, a full college education - tuition, room, board and a monthly stipend covering the cost of the most expensive in-state public university. It would more than double the value of the current GI Bill education benefit from $40,000 to $90,000.
Bush had threatened to veto the proposal, saying it was too generous and could entice too many soldiers serving in Iraq or Afghanistan to leave the military. But the White House backed down after Democrats dropped a plan to pay for the benefit by raising taxes on individuals who earn at least $500,000 a year and couples who earn $1 million.
But the White House ended up adding at least $10 billion to the $52 billion price tag for the new benefit over 10 years by insisting that veterans be allowed to transfer the college education benefit to a family member.
The fiscally conservative House Blue Dog Democrats, who pushed for the tax hike to pay for the veterans' benefit, expressed frustration that the war spending and the new GI bill benefit will be added to the growing national debt.
"We are making a serious mistake by not paying for these things," said Rep. Allen Boyd, D-Fla., a Blue Dog member. "It is one our children and grandchildren will pay for."
But House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, who helped broker the deal, insisted that the spending for the war and for veterans' benefits was worth it. "The cost of this bill, frankly, is high, but it's a price of freedom. And I don't think you put a price on freedom and security in our country," he said.
Democrats succeeded in keeping language in the bill postponing six Medicaid rules proposed by the Bush administration, which critics say would have led to cuts in services to seniors, families and the disabled.
The bill also would bar the United States from spending more money on the reconstruction of Iraq unless the Iraqi government matches it dollar for dollar. And it would ban the use of military construction funds to build permanent bases in Iraq.
Anti-war groups delivered "certificates of shame" and cardboard cutout "bloody hands" to Pelosi and other House leaders before the vote.
"We really feel that they have betrayed the American people who voted for them to get us out of this war," said Medea Benjamin, co-founder of the anti-war group CodePink, based in San Francisco.
Pelosi gave a fiery anti-war speech Thursday night, but also expressed her disappointment that the bill will continue to fund Bush's Iraq policy. "Let us think and hope that this is the last time there will ever be another dollar spent without constraints, without conditions, without direction," she said.
© 2008 San Francisco Chronicle