Democrats considering Iraq 'bridge fund' with conditions

Leaders consider putting measure on schedule this week to give the Senate time to consider it before Thanksgiving recess.

Democratic leaders are considering a plan to bring up a stand-alone "bridge fund" supplemental bill for Iraq with conditions, including possible timelines for withdrawal. Aides described the option as tentative, with no final decisions until Democratic leaders meet again, which could happen as early as Tuesday morning. But the idea was gaining enough momentum that House Democratic leaders were considering putting the developing measure on the floor schedule this week to give the Senate time to consider it next week before adjourning for the Thanksgiving recess.

Aides said the overall size of the package and its conditions were unclear. Democratic leaders are caught between the anti-war wing of their party, which is pushing to keep the bill's cost low, and old bulls such as Senate Defense Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, who has pushed for a package of at least $50 billion.

"The only way they can make this a pill that will be swallowed is if they put some sort of severe restrictions on it, but it all depends on what the strings are," said an aide to an "Out of Iraq" Caucus member.

During a speech today at the National Press Club, House Appropriations Chairman David Obey would not comment on possible next steps on Iraq but did say he would only support additional funds for the war if it is "in the context of a policy change," chiefly withdrawal of troops from combat zones before 2009. The discussions were affecting the timing of a vote this week on a separate bill to provide $459.6 billion in fiscal 2008 for the base Pentagon budget. The House is scheduled to appoint conferees on the Defense appropriations bill today, allowing negotiators to meet as early as Tuesday to sign off on its contents. That meeting could be put off until Wednesday pending discussions on a possible Iraq supplemental.

Leaders were still deciding whether to include an immediate $11 billion infusion for mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles in the Defense spending, as that measure is likely to go quickly to President Bush for his signature -- unlike a bridge fund with conditions, which Bush would likely oppose. The strategy of considering a stand-alone Iraq bill with conditions allows Democratic leaders to cover their left flank, while lambasting Republicans for holding up funds for the troops if they oppose the bill. Republicans probably will dismiss the strategy as a ploy to hold troop funding hostage to arbitrary conditions.

Such calculations are playing into debate this week on a $215 billion package of Labor-HHS and VA-Military Construction spending. The bill is scheduled for the House floor as early as Tuesday. House Republicans are lining up against the package, arguing Democrats are trying to blackmail them into voting for a Labor-HHS bill that is $10 billion above Bush's request by tying it to the sensitive VA-Military Construction spending bill with Veterans Day on Sunday. Senate Republicans are expected to use a rules change implemented this year to force the Democrats to get 60 votes or split the package. Republicans are expected to have the necessary votes to force that outcome in the Senate.