WASHINGTON (AP) In a move likely to doom billions of dollars that Democrats had sought for domestic programs, Senate leaders agreed Wednesday night to focus a funding bill on Pentagon operations in Iraq and Afghanistan but allow a vote on a huge expansion of veterans' education benefits.
The Senate was slated to vote today to provide $165 billion for the wars, funding those operations until the new administration takes over next year. GOP leaders were expected to try to block the amendment aimed at the GI Bill authored by Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va. to send a "clean" war funding bill back to the House. Democrats expressed cautious confidence that they would win the 60 votes needed to adopt it.
The plan announced Wednesday night by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., would probably scuttle efforts to provide 13 more weeks of unemployment benefits as well as money for heating subsidies, fighting Western wildfires and aid to rural schools. Such spending had been backed by senators in both parties but had drawn a veto promise from President Bush.
The White House also promised to veto the additional veterans education benefits, arguing that they would hurt efforts to re-enlist troops finishing their stints in the service.
To gain almost $28 billion in non-defense spending, Democrats would need to win over a dozen or more Republicans a difficult task at best.
The deal reached between Reid and his GOP counterpart, Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, would also provide for passage of Bush's funding request without restrictions on his conduct of the Iraq war.
The deal, if passed on Thursday, would send the war funding bill to the House in hopes it would soon reach Bush's desk.
Under the proposal, the Senate would first vote and is expected to reject a bill pending before the Senate that's replete with domestic programs added by both Democrats and Republicans.
Then the Senate would turn to the GI Bill expansion, which is aimed at guaranteeing returning Iraq war veterans the equivalent of a four-year education at a public university. It would cost $52 billion over the next decade.
Next would come a vote on the war funding.
Republicans are expected to block a Democratic plan to urge Bush to begin redeployment of combat troops and place other strings on his ability to conduct the war in Iraq. After that vote, the Senate would immediately vote and pass the war funding measure. If Democrats are successful, the war funding measure would likely move to the House in tandem with the education proposal.
The House would be unlikely to act until Congress returns from a one-week recess.
The war funding measure has had a remarkably chaotic journey through Congress. It's been delayed for weeks as Democrats tried to figure out ways to structure debate to allow themselves to vote against financing the war in Iraq but still ensure that it passes.
The unusual procedure in both House and Senate allowed separate votes on components of the measure to allow Democrats and a few Republicans to tack domestic programs onto Bush's war request, while Republicans would supply the votes to adopt the war funding.
Republicans say the process is unfair, and when the House debated the war funding measure last week, angry Republicans sat out the vote and combined with anti-war Democrats to kill the war funding. But the House easily passed the GI Bill improvements, an increase in unemployment benefits and restrictions on Bush's ability to conduct the war in Iraq.
In the Senate, members of the Appropriations Committee added more than $10 million in discretionary funding not requested by Bush, including funding for grants to state and local police departments, $1 billion for energy subsidies for the poor and more than $1 billion to help Mississippi recover from Hurricane Katrina.
Reid always held a dim view of the domestic extras, knowing they would guarantee a veto and reinforce perceptions that Senate is too profligate. Indeed, Appropriations Committee members treated the war funding bill like the last train leaving the station, and, as a result, added billions of dollars for pet programs.