Accord reached on bill to pay for Iraq, Afghan wars

WASHINGTON — President Bush would win $162 billion in long-overdue funding to carry out military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan into next year under a bipartisan agreement sealed on Capitol Hill on today.

The agreement reached between House Democrats and Republicans and the White House — if passed into law as expected — would finally put to rest Bush’s long-standing battles with congressional Democrats over war funding.

House passage of the bill, expected Thursday, would also pave the way for a quick infusion of emergency flood relief for the Midwest, a 13-week extension of unemployment payments for the longtime jobless and a big boost in GI Bill college for veterans.

The latest installment of war funding would bring to well over $600 billion the amount of money provided by Congress to conduct the unpopular war in Iraq. It would also give Bush’s successor several months to set Iraq policy after taking office in January — and spares lawmakers the need to cast another war-related vote closer to Election Day.

House Democratic and Republican leaders announced the agreement this afternoon. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., withheld an outright endorsement but through a spokesman praised several key elements of the deal.

“This is an agreement that has been worked out in a bipartisan way that I think is acceptable to both most Democrats and most Republicans,” said House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio.

White House Budget Director Jim Nussle signaled Bush would sign the measure.

“It meets the needs of the troops; it doesn’t tie the hands of commanders in the field,” Nussle said. He also said the spending levels in the bill stayed within Bush’s demands. The latter claim was a stretch since the measure will carry new GI Bill benefits, as well as additional unemployment payments that Bush had threatened to veto.

But the agreement drops restrictions on Bush’s ability to conduct the war and gives him almost all of the funding he sought well over a year ago for Iraq and Afghanistan.

The White House — and Capitol Hill Republicans — had signaled greater flexibility in recent weeks after Democrats orchestrated impressive votes to more than double GI Bill college benefits and give a 13-week extension of unemployment payments for people whose benefits have run out.

In late-stage talks, Democrats dropped a provision to pay for the GI college benefits by imposing a half-percentage point income tax surcharge on incomes exceeding $500,000 for singles and incomes over $1 million earned by married couples. They also dropped a plan to extend unemployment benefits for an additional 13 weeks in states with particularly high unemployment rates.

Democrats and governors across the country emerged the victors in a battle with the White House to block new Bush administration rules designed to cut spending on Medicaid health care for the poor and disabled.

The war funding bill had bedeviled Democratic leaders for months. Its passage has become more urgent with looming furloughs next month of civilian employees and contract workers.

Conservative “Blue Dog” Democrats are upset that the new GI Bill benefits, with costs tentatively estimated at $62 billion over the next decade, will be added to the deficit instead of being “paid for” as called for under House rules.

“We know the day of reckoning is coming,” said Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Calif., who called the measure “totally irresponsible.”

The new GI Bill essentially would guarantee a full scholarship at any in-state public university, along with a monthly housing stipend, for people who serve in the military for at least three years. It is aimed at replicating the benefits awarded veterans of World War II and more than doubles the value of the benefit — from $40,000 today to $90,000.

Full details of the nuts and bolts of the measure won’t be released until Thursday.

But Nussle said the measure would provide $2.6 billion in additional disaster aid to replenish accounts already being tapped to deal with the terrible flooding across the Midwest.

It also contains $5.8 billion sought by Bush for next year to build levees and other flood control projects around New Orleans.

The bill is slated to be considered under an unusual procedure in which funding for the war would be voted on separately from the GI Bill, unemployment insurance extension and other domestic measures, such as additional funding for the glitch-plagued 2010 census.

The procedural setup allows anti-war Democrats to avoid votes to fund the war while still ensuring the money advances to Bush on his terms. In a vote last month, House Democrats tried to force Bush to begin troops withdrawals within 30 days with a goal of full withdrawal of combat troops within 18 months. The Senate easily killed the idea.

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