Plans for stopgap spending bill complicated by Iraq funding

As Democrats prepare for the next battle with the White House over Iraq war spending, they have a shorter-term hurdle to overcome: How to handle the looming expiration of the Pentagon's war funding authority.

The end of the fiscal year is Sept. 30, and Congress must next week pass a continuing resolution to provide stopgap funding for federal departments and agencies, as none of the fiscal 2008 appropriations bills have been signed into law.

Given the tricky politics of Iraq, even routine legislation like a CR is proving a difficult discussion, as the measure must provide spending authority in some form for Pentagon operations.

One option gaining currency among Democrats is to continue the flow of military spending at the current-year rate, including the Iraq and Afghanistan "bridge fund" Republicans enacted last year as part of the fiscal 2007 Defense appropriations bill but not the more recent May supplemental.

That would provide a cushion for the Pentagon, though short of what it wants, until as late as Nov. 16, depending on the eventual duration of the CR.

During that period, Congress will be debating the administration's new war request, and potentially some additional wiggle room could be provided if Democrats complete action on the regular $460 billion fiscal 2008 Defense appropriations bill in that timeframe.

This approach attempts to thread the needle between moderates wary of being painted as shortchanging the troops, and anti-war members who would rather see no funding continued and troops brought home immediately.

It would also inoculate Democrats against charges of choking off funding for the war, the thinking goes.

"That is an option," said House Democratic Caucus Vice Chairman John Larson of Connecticut, although he cautioned "discussions are ongoing at multiple levels."

House Appropriations Chairman David Obey, D-Wis., declined to comment, while a spokesman for Senate Appropriations Chairman Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., said there have been no decisions.

As part of the fiscal 2007 Defense spending bill enacted last September, Republicans included $70 billion in supplemental funds for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Democrats then replenished those accounts in May after a drawn-out veto fight with President Bush over troop withdrawal deadlines. That bill included another $99.5 billion for the wars.

Not including the latest round of supplemental funding in the CR is a matter of some concern for the Pentagon, because without the enactment of the fiscal 2008 Defense spending bill they will have to make do without its $40 billion increase. But if Democrats include in the CR the entire $70 billion bridge fund, it would equal total Pentagon funding at an annualized rate of $490 billion. That is $30 billion more than what is currently envisioned in the fiscal 2008 Defense bill, a sizeable increase -- though short of the requested amount when war funds are included.

"As the events change in Iraq on a daily basis and the conditions worsen there, I think it's better that Congress tighten the chain on the administration, not loosen it," said Rep. Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio, a member of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee.

"The continuing resolution will be a bit of a link to that, but the real debate will be over the supplemental and what period of time that will be extended ... there are some members that don't want to extend any money."

Democrats will also have to decide whether to boost CR funding for foreign aid that was enacted last year as emergency spending, as well as for border security, another emotional issue for both parties.

The White House early next week is expected to send up an amendment to its $150 billion fiscal 2008 war supplemental request, boosting that figure to roughly $200 billion. Hearings will not begin until October and, in the interim, House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman John Murtha, D-Pa., said he expects Congress will approve the base fiscal 2008 Pentagon bill early next month, including transfer authority for the military to fund war operations.

But the Senate will not even take up its version of the fiscal 2008 bill until next week, and subsequent conference negotiations could take a few weeks -- if Democrats decide to send the measure to the president's desk right away.

It is among the few appropriations bills Bush has not threatened to veto, and there is sentiment among Democrats in both chambers to hold it back as a vehicle to carry domestic bills Bush has voiced concerns about.

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