WASHINGTON - House Democratic
support for the war in Afghanistan has eroded to a point where
President Barack Obama is now so reliant on Republican votes that he’s
backtracking from his own party’s efforts to add new education funding
to avert teacher layoffs.
The conflict showed itself Tuesday night as Democrats began spelling
out the details of what domestic funds are proposed to be added to a
Senate-passed version of the same war-funding bill. The 110 page
amendment was posted on the House Rules Committee website even as the
House Democratic whip organization circulated a summary that included
border security and nuclear energy credits along with nearly $15
billion for education.
No indication was given of an administration position pro or con: TBA
was the operative acronym. But unless it steps forward more, the White
House risks further straining relations with Democrats, already
frustrated by the president’s lukewarm support of new jobs and economic
relief legislation going into November’s elections.
The changed war funding dynamic is crucial.
In a similar fight a year ago, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) was able
to hold her losses to just 32 Democrats and still prevail with token
support from five Republicans. Nothing like that seems possible now
with Democratic defections pegged at closer to 80 or 90 votes, and the
speaker, perhaps fearful of criticism from the left, refusing to say
how she will vote on the war funds.
The dynamics within the House Appropriations Committee are also
different since the death of Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.) last winter and
the pending retirement of Appropriations Chairman Dave Obey (D-Wis.).
Rep. Norm Dicks (D-Wash.), who inherited Murtha’s defense panel and is
slated to move up to Obey’s post next year, has yet to step forward
forcefully, creating a power vacuum that can hurt the administration’s
cause. At the same time, Obey — a critic of the war — has pursued the
teachers pay issue with the passion of a man who knows his time in
office is running out and that he may not have a better shot to boost
education funding this year.
The documents released last night anticipate a $10 billion Education
Jobs Fund intended to help local school boards , hurt by the economic
downturn, to retain an estimated 140,000 employees. Another $4.95
billion is provided to fill a widely acknowledged shortfall in Pell
Grant funding for low-income college students. Border security accounts
are promised $701 million in new spending, and $180 million would serve
to support billions in loan guarantees for the nuclear industry and new
To offset the costs, about $12 billion would be rescinded from prior
appropriations including unspent funds from last year’s Recovery Act.
Defense, highway construction, and pandemic flu programs are among
those hit, and new legislation would bar pharmaceutical companies from
paying competitors to delay bringing generic drugs to market.
Democrats are pledging to offset any domestic spending that goes beyond
Obama’s request, but at this stage, Republicans remain adamantly
opposed to much of the domestic add-ons and appear to have a virtual
veto given their hold on the war funds.
The White House has been careful thus far not to press the Democrats to
give in for fear that would provoke a backlash. But with the July 4
recess beginning this weekend, the administration would prefer that the
House take the path of least GOP resistance — namely, accepting a clean
version of the $58.9 billion Senate-passed war-funding bill.
a shocker. The White House would want us to take the Senate bill.
That’s their general position,” Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.)
told POLITICO with some sarcasm — and laughter. Salvaging the education
money is still a priority, but Hoyer and Majority Whip James Clyburn
(D-S.C.) each said separately that taking the Senate bill was now a
“It’s one of the options,” Clyburn said.
Since late last week, Democrats have been polling their members to
gauge support for the estimated $37 billion in war-related funding
requested by the president and what’s now a roughly equal package of
spending including disaster aid, Haiti earthquake relief, veterans’
benefits and the teacher assistance.
“We’re trying to put the pieces of a puzzle together that don’t quite
fit together,” Rep. Robert Andrews (D-N.J.) said in an interview. “Our
problem right now is a significant number of moderates don’t want to
vote for the domestic spending and a significant number of progressives
don’t want to vote for the war funding.”
A House Democratic Caucus meeting Tuesday was devoted to the question
of what steps the party should take to stimulate employment. But just
as the war debate has shifted, so has the willingness of many in the
party to embrace any new spending, even if it’s paid for with other
“There are a number of moderates who feel that any pay-fors should be
for deficit reduction, not to offset new spending,” Andrews said. “If
you have $10 billion laying around for teachers, reduce the deficit by
With its outcome never in doubt, Tuesday’s Senate confirmation hearing
for Gen. David Petraeus, the new U.S. commander for the war, was an
opportunity to try to strengthen its case on the other side of the
Capitol as well.
Under questioning by Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), Petraeus said the
stepped-up fighting by the Taliban gives the lie to the notion that the
insurgents believe the U.S. will leave soon and suggests that American
attacks have been more damaging to the Taliban than credited.
“They’re fighting to retain safe havens and sanctuaries that they’ve
been able to establish in recent years,” Petraeus said. “When we take
them away, they must retake them. Marja was — Marja was the nexus of
the Taliban. It had IED-producing factories, if you will, supplies,
headquarters, medical facilities, and the illegal narcotics industry
all tied into one. They lost a great deal when they lost Marja, and
it’s not surprising that they fight back.”
But the general warned of the politics as well.
“They’re also fighting to break our will. This is a contest of wills.
And they can sense concern in various capitals around the world, and of
course, they want to increase that concern.”