Democrats debate approval of war spending

WASHINGTON — Democrats are debating whether to approve $50 billion to $70 billion for Iraq and Afghanistan, less than half of President Bush’s $196 billion request but enough to keep the wars afloat for several more months.

Such a move would satisfy party members who want to spare the Pentagon from a painful budget dance and support the troops as Congress considers its next major step on Iraq.

But it would also irritate scores of other Democrats, who want to pay only to bring troops home and who say their leadership is not doing enough to end the war.

“I cannot vote for another dollar that will be used to continue the president’s occupation of Iraq,” said Rep. Lynn Woolsey, D-Calif.

Democratic leaders caution that no decisions have been made, including whether to approve any money for the wars at all. Also uncertain is which spending bill might contain the war money.

Consideration of the war money comes as Democrats are locked in a dispute with Bush on domestic spending. None of the dozen annual spending bills, including the Pentagon’s annual $460 billion budget, have been approved.

Democrats say one possibility is sending Bush a bill that would bundle together the defense and veterans spending he wants with extra money for education that he doesn’t. The bill would not likely include war funding, officials said.

On Tuesday, Bush said he would veto such a measure, calling it a “three-bill pileup.”

On the table for war spending are estimates of $40 billion to $70 billion — with $50 billion considered the most likely scenario. The final amount would depend on how many months of combat that Democrats would want to support, and how much money they think the Pentagon needs to buy new bomb-resistant vehicles that protect troops from roadside blasts.

Many Democrats say the money is necessary if Congress passes an annual defense spending bill without any war funding. If left without a “bridge fund” to fill the gap until Congress takes up the full $196 billion request, the Pentagon would have to divert money from less urgent accounts to pay for immediate war requirements — an approach military officials warn is disruptive and inefficient.

These Democrats also say they want to avoid giving the public perception that the party is turning its back on the troops.

Earlier this fall, Democrats decided to delay until next year action on Bush’s war spending request. Unable to pass veto-proof legislation ordering troops home, they also are divided on whether to continue paying for the unpopular war.

Party officials said they hoped that by next year, as election season approached, more Republicans might be willing to support anti-war legislation.

House and Senate appropriators hoped to complete an agreement on the 2008 defense appropriations bill on Thursday. Neither the House or Senate version of the bill includes war spending.

Meeting privately on Tuesday to discuss the bill were Reps. John Murtha and C.W. Bill Young and Sens. Daniel Inouye and Ted Stevens. Murtha, D-Pa., and Inouye, D-Hawaii, chair the House and Senate panels that oversee military spending; Young, R-Fla., and Stevens, R-Alaska, are the top Republicans on those subcommittees.

Murtha said he supports adding the war spending to the Pentagon’s core budget, but that leadership opposes it.

“You’re going to have a bridge fund at some point,” he told reporters. “I just don’t know if it’ll be on this bill.”

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