Senate passes omnibus spending bill with unfettered Iraq funds

The Senate approved $70 billion more for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan Tuesday, paving the way for President Bush's signature on a roughly $560 billion omnibus spending package.

The omnibus measure was headed for final passage in the Senate and will make a final stop in the House Wednesday before going to Bush's desk. The president's aides say Bush will sign the bill, as the addition of Iraq war funds without conditions was the final hurdle.

The war-funding amendment by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., passed, 70-25.

It was co-sponsored by Defense Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, and Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Chairman Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn.

The amendment adds roughly $39 billion to the House-approved package, which contained $31 billion only for Afghanistan operations, with some funding for protective equipment.

Bush and GOP leaders complained this would shortchange troops in Iraq.

"Even those of us who have disagreed on this war have always agreed on one thing: Troops in the field will not be left without the resources they need," McConnell said.

About half of the new money, $35.2 billion, would be for Army operations and maintenance accounts that have suffered the most strain.

That would bring Army operations funding approved in fiscal 2008 to $62.6 billion, including the Defense Appropriations bill signed into law in November.

Based on a spending rate of about $6.6 billion per month, the cash infusion would appear to give the Army breathing room until around June before another supplemental is needed.

Without new funding, Pentagon officials have said they only had leeway to make it to February, and even then, the strain of borrowing from domestic accounts would impose harsh measures on services for military families.

Deriding the amendment as another "blank check," Democrats, led by Sen. Russell Feingold of Wisconsin, failed to impose strings on the money.

Their amendment to mandate a withdrawal beginning 90 days after enactment received only 24 votes. Another amendment by Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, and others would have expressed in a nonbinding resolution that the Iraq mission should transition to limited counterterrorism and training activities. It failed, 50-45.

Under rules for debate structured by leaders of both parties, all of the Iraq-related amendments required 60 votes for adoption.

Approval of the Iraq money was likely to clear a path for final passage Wednesday in the House over the objections of anti-war liberals, ending a convoluted fiscal 2008 appropriations process.

Bush and fellow Republicans obtained much of what they wanted, although there was grumbling from some about overall spending levels, budget priorities, home-state earmarks and policy riders.

Republicans complained about items like $400 million in "welfare spending," as Rep. John Shadegg, R-Ariz., put it, referring to an emergency designation to cover a shortfall in a nutrition program for poor women and children brought on by high food and dairy prices.

Another $53 million in emergency fuel aid to North Korea was criticized, although it was cut in half from what Bush asked for as part of his $196.4 billion war supplemental request.

Democrats wound up cutting about one-third of the $7 billion Bush requested as emergency foreign-aid spending, including $500 million for Bush's ambitious anti-drug partnership with Mexico.

The Appropriations panels stated in a report accompanying the bill that they "regret that the Department of State failed to adequately consult with Congress prior to submitting" the request.

While calling the process "imperfect," Appropriations ranking member Thad Cochran, R-Miss., generally had praise for Democrats' effort to keep the measure clean of policy riders and "legislative baggage imported from other committees."

Cochran said the two parties "brought together a bill this year, despite new rules, hard negotiations and renegotiations."

To stave off cuts in numerous programs, Democrats had to resort to across-the-board cuts to their bills of as much as 1.74 percent. They also significantly reduced Bush's budget priorities in a number of areas in favor of programs such as Head Start, cancer research and special education.

Still, domestic programs would rise less than 3 percent above the current year. "I am not pleased with this outcome,"Appropriations Chairman Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., said, but he noted that within the stringent limits "we have funded as best we could essential priorities of this nation."

The most significant cut to Bush's priorities from previous spending bills appears to be a $688 million cut for pandemic flu preparedness from the Labor-HHS measure Bush vetoed last month, down to $76 million.

That resulted in an overall $873 million cut from Bush's initial request. The committees noted in the report that $1.2 billion remains in unobligated avian flu funds and additional money could be included in a supplemental to be considered next year.

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