Pressure to pass war funding bill lacking Pelosi’s iron fist

House Democrats who reluctantly supported funding for the Afghanistan war under pressure from party leaders a year ago say they are unlikely to do so this time around.

The House leadership has struggled to come up with enough Democratic votes to send $33 billion in additional funding to the front lines, amid a threat by Republicans to sit out the vote because of opposition to unrelated spending items included in the legislation.

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Rep. Steve Cohen (Tenn.) was one of the 20 Democrats who initially voted against war funding in 2009 but then gave Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) their vote when the GOP withdrew its support for the legislation and more Democrats were needed to ensure House passage of a final bill.

“I don’t think I’m open this time,” Cohen told The Hill. He questioned the U.S. strategy in the war and said he didn’t see the funding “being productive in Afghanistan or for America.”

As for the overall vote, he said: “I suspect they’ll need the Republicans.”

Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), a close confidant of Pelosi’s whose voting mirrored Cohen’s in 2009, said he was firmly against additional war funding this time.

Two more members on the list, Reps. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) and Doris Matsui (D-Calif.), said they had not made a final decision on the legislation but voiced serious doubts about the war effort.

“My starting point is I’m very concerned about where we are in Afghanistan,” Matsui said.

“I’m very concerned,” Gutierrez said, citing the mounting death toll and the fact that the war is now the longest in U.S. history. He also questioned the July 2011 target for beginning a withdrawal of American troops. “I’m not feeling reassured that in a year everything is going to be transitioned,” Gutierrez said.

Pelosi has said she would not lobby her members on a war vote again, calling the issue “a different kind of vote.”

Indeed, both Gutierrez and Matsui said they had not been pressured by Democratic leaders on their vote.

Yet the leadership is actively gauging the support of its members for the legislation.

“We are whipping the supplemental,” a chief deputy whip, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), told The Hill on Tuesday. She acknowledged Pelosi’s promise after last year’s vote, but added: “What vote don’t we want to win that we put out on the floor?”

Party leaders hope to hold a vote Thursday, and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said on Tuesday that the bill would come to the House floor “certainly by Friday.” Defense Secretary Robert Gates said last month that he was becoming “increasingly concerned” about the delay in approval for the funds. “We begin to have to do stupid things if the supplemental isn’t passed by the Fourth of July recess,” Gates said.

The current legislation, a supplemental appropriations bill, includes $33 billion for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as additional relief aid for the Haiti earthquake and the Gulf oil spill. A version passed the Senate in May, but House leaders want to add $15 billion in education funding for the states. Republicans are opposed to the additional domestic spending.

While a final decision has not been made, Democrats were planning to hold separate votes on the war funding and domestic spending. The move is a bow to demands from anti-war members for an opportunity to register their opposition to the war, as well as an effort to gain votes from Republicans opposed to the education funding.

Yet Republicans have signaled they would oppose the war measure, perhaps by voting present, because they see it as a ploy to gain passage of the unrelated programs.  

“We aren’t planning to help [Democrats] pass tens of billions of so-called stimulus spending on the backs of our troops,” said Michael Steel, spokesman for the House Republican leader, Rep. John Boehner (Ohio).
Wasserman Schultz said that move would backfire, so long as Democrats could muster the votes to pass the war funding without Republican help.

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“If all of [the Republicans] vote present, and we have a significant chunk — let’s say a plurality if not a majority — of our members that vote yes, then I don’t know how they’re going to run away from the fact that we were there for the troops and they weren’t, and with their votes we would have passed it,” she said.

House liberals, however, doubt that will be possible. “If the Republicans vote against it, it won’t pass, is my assumption,” a staunch war opponent, Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), said. “That would be nice.”

Rep. James McGovern (D-Mass.), who has pushed for a mandatory withdrawal deadline for the war, said there is “a general angst” among Democrats about the situation in Afghanistan.

“We were told during the last supplemental that that would be the very last supplemental we would have on Afghanistan. And now here we are doing another supplemental,” McGovern said.

“No one is now saying this is the last supplemental.”

Other liberals plan to step up pressure on war supporters as the vote nears. The Out of Afghanistan Caucus is circulating a letter challenging lawmakers who are concerned about deficits and debt to oppose the funding bill on fiscal grounds. “If you oppose deficit spending, debt dependency on China, cuts to Social Security, and are concerned about a debt-threat to our national security, then oppose this bill,” the letter states.

 
Jared Allen contributed reporting to this article.