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.
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
"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
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
"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.
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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.
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
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."