In what may be the largest supplemental in U.S. history, the House appropriations committee passed a $124.1 billion emergency funding bill – more than $25 billion more than requested by President Bush.
The bill is touted as changing course in Iraq because it requires troops to be out by August 31, 2008. But even then there are four exceptions that troops can remain in Iraq for including “capturing or killing” members of Al Qaeda or other terrorists. They can also stay to train Iraqi troops.
As a result a coalition of leading anti-war groups issued a press release opposing the supplemental. The hearing began with controversy. Citizens had lined up for the 9:00 AM hearing beginning at 6:00 AM. As the hearing time approached it was evident that the seventy-five or so people on line were opponents of the war – wearing anti-war buttons, and shirts with anti-war slogans. The police came over and we were told that the hearing room was full and very few if any of us would get in. It was evident that staff members filled the hearing room up, we suspect, to keep protesters out.
Indeed, not only were citizen’s not allowed in the hearing room, but Capitol Hill police stopped peace advocates from handing out press releases to the media who were covering the hearing. Police told the advocate, Linda Schade of VotersForPeace, that only congressional staff members were allowed to hand out releases. Schade continued handing out a release about Tina Richards, the Marine Mom who confronted Rep. Obey in the halls of Congress last week, to all the media present while being told to stop.
Back on line advocates were chanting “Let the people in” in the congressional hallway. Tempers heated and three activists were arrested. These included Gael Murphy of Code Pink, Ralph Loeffler and Mel Stevens of the Troops Out Now Encampment. Seven additional activists were arrested outside blocking the Rayburn House Office Building, where the hearing room was located.
When it got to the hearing, Chairman David Obey opened by saying there were three goals to the appropriation:
- redirect funding to fighting Al Qaeda in Afghanistan
- adequately funding the Veterans Administration so returning soldiers are properly taken care of
- putting in place a timeline to end U.S. involvement in Iraq based on Iraqi progress
He described Congress as playing the “bad cop” role not only holding Iraq to benchmarks but also Bush, particularly around troop readiness. Obey noted how this was the largest supplemental in all of his years in Congress, but he didn’t comment on how the $98 billion Bush request had grown to $124.1 billion after the Democrats added to it.
While some of those additions were for health care for vets, the Afghanistan War and other war issues most of those additions were for non-military issues. Rep. Jerry Lewis, the ranking Republican, pointed out how the reason for the add-ons was probably because this is “the Speaker’s bill” and the Democrats are divided. In order to get the Democrats to support the bill they have been “promising something to everyone.”
The bill includes money for spinach farmers, salmon fishing, fish breeding, health care for children, Gulf Coast aide, funds for Midwest farmers and other non-defense spending. There are also funds for Homeland Security, and foreign aide to Lebanon, Sudan, Liberia, Jordan, Chad, E. Timor and other countries. It even includes a directive on the minimum wage. Lewis said “Republicans will not abandon our principles for pork barrel back home.” He implied that Democrats were having their votes purchased by money for the home district.
Kentucky Representative Hal Rogers opened his comments saying “Welcome K-Mart shoppers” and described the additions to the supplemental as an effort to buy votes. He described saying “There is something for you if you will just vote for this bill.” He said these add-ons should have been part of the normal appropriation process, not an emergency supplemental.
Lewis also complained that the supplemental will be going to the House floor without the opportunity for amendments, a so-called ‘closed rule.’ Lewis said this would be unprecedented and if so “all bets are off for getting our work done this year.” Rep. Lee, who has proposed an amendment that would end the war by December 31, 2007, also said in a hallway conversation that they were not allowing her to propose her amendment.
Rep. Jack Murtha, who chairs the subcommittee on defense appropriations, focused on troop readiness in his comments. He said that his subcommittee added funds the White House did not ask for in order to take care of the troops including hundreds of millions to treat brain injuries and PTSD. He said he wanted to make sure every soldier got health care as good as ABC’s Bob Woodruff.
Murtha reported that his subcommittee held 11 hearings and every combat commander testified that the military is less ready today than when we went to war. Murtha expressed concern that the U.S. military was being worn out by being stretched too thin and this was also affecting the National Guard. “No National Guard could be deployed today because of readiness.”
Murtha also focused on sending untrained troops into Iraq. When he asked why troops were not being trained in the U.S. DoD officials told him they would be trained in the desert.
Troop exhaustion from lengthy stays in Iraq was a concern for Murtha. He noted that normally DoD requires two years at home between deployments and the National Guard required five years – this bill requires one year (unless waived by the president). He said when troops are in the field for more than three months the risks of PTSD increase. He described a poll which found that 94% of troops had been shot at in Iraq and 86% knew someone who had been shot or killed. He described the troops as being in “intense combat” much more intense than Vietnam.