Midterm backlash may await Speaker Pelosi over Afghanistan troop surge

President Barack Obama’s decision to ramp up the war in Afghanistan will put Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) between a rock and a hard place. Someday. Maybe.

Confusion reigned Wednesday about when or if Congress will be called upon to vote on the plan to send an additional 30,000 troops.

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Until Pelosi, who doesn’t support the escalation, faces pressure to round up votes, she can basically ignore the split with the president she helped get elected. She will certainly face questions from reporters at her regularly scheduled Thursday press conference, but she won’t have to twist any arms anytime soon.

Pelosi has wriggled through tight spots before. In 2007, she guided a war spending bill with everything President George W. Bush wanted to the floor, and then voted against it.

Last summer, she had to scrape together 18 liberal Democrats to change their votes to pass an Afghanistan supplemental after Republicans withdrew support because of allocated money for the International Monetary Fund. One of her key arguments was that Democrats would incorporate war funding into the regular appropriations process, and they wouldn’t be voting on any more war supplementals.

Some legislators, including powerful Appropriations Defense subcommittee Chairman John Murtha (D-Pa.), said there will have to be a wartime supplemental by the middle of next year. He said it will be $40 billion, not the $30 billion cost Obama cited Tuesday night.

“Tell me, how are you going to pay for the war without a supplemental? They [the Pentagon] do not have the money to operate under the president’s budget —with or without the additional troops,” Murtha said at a press roundtable on Wednesday.

But many interpret Obama’s pronouncement that he is “committed to addressing these costs openly and honestly” to mean that he plans to include the costs in the regular appropriations process rather than a supplemental. Supplementals, used throughout Iraq and Afghanistan by the Bush administration, are considered “emergency spending” and load the costs onto the nation’s credit card balance.

Leadership aides said there will definitely be no war votes by the end of the year. And House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.), an anti-war advocate, said he doesn’t know how the spending will be handled.

“I don’t make any assumptions,” Obey told The Hill on Wednesday. “They’ll make a decision and then we’ll decide how we’re going to pay for it.”

Emergency supplemental measures are exempt from the discretionary spending limits detailed in the congressional budget resolution.

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said Wednesday that the Pentagon will need an additional $30 billion to $35 billion to pay for the war plan. That money would be on top of the $130 billion requested for war operations as part of the 2010 defense budget. Gates, however, did not specify what form the request for the additional money would take and when it would come.

Murtha said Wednesday that it is his understanding that the White House and the Pentagon would like to see the money added to the 2010 defense appropriations bill currently in negotiations between the House and the Senate. But Murtha made it clear he, Obey and Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) would oppose such a move.

Obama’s new Afghanistan policy pits the party’s anti-war liberal base against its centrists and a core of Obama loyalists. Pelosi has proven adept at bridging such divides in her party, including at least one time when she opposed the bill she was shepherding.

But every bill presents a new challenge. In the case of Obama’s Afghanistan policy, there isn’t much question that a funding request would pass. Some, if not many, Republicans will swallow what objections they have rather than appear unwilling to support troops in harm’s way. And even opponents of the war acknowledge that enough centrist Democrats would join the GOP to pass a funding bill.

The problem is the erosion in credibility that would come with a majority of congressional Democrats opposing what could be the defining military and foreign policy decision of Obama’s presidency. And there’s also the damage of a top Democratic leader like Pelosi bucking the president.

That explains why, according to Murtha, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel pressed him for his support Tuesday. Murtha is one of the voices Pelosi listens most closely to on defense issues.

Pressed on when there might be a vote on the Afghanistan policy, the Speaker’s office was noncommittal.

“President Obama addressed the nation yesterday,” said Pelosi spokesman Nadeam Elshami. “Congressional committees are beginning to hear testimony from the administration this week, and soon the full House will be briefed by high-level administration representatives about the strategy in Afghanistan and Pakistan.”

A supplemental vote could be four to six months away, long enough for circumstances on the ground to change significantly. Including war costs in the regular defense-spending bill might take even longer. The congressional calendar gives Pelosi plenty of room. The House is in for two more short weeks, then is scheduled to be in recess for a month.

But some anti-war liberals, primarily Rep. James McGovern (D-Mass.), are pushing for a debate and vote much sooner than that, even before the end of the year. And McGovern, a member of the powerful Rules Committee, said he is willing to cross leadership to force such a vote.

“I think there needs to be a debate on Afghanistan,” McGovern told The Hill. “Any way we can get one, we should do it.”

McGovern considered pressing the case in a Democratic Caucus meeting Wednesday afternoon on financial regulatory reform, but was assured by Caucus Chairman John Larson (D-Conn.) that there will be a caucus meeting soon on the Afghanistan buildup. Aides say a caucus meeting on Afghanistan will likely be next week, possibly as early as Thursday.

While Afghanistan has dominated Washington news this week, the party’s caucus meetings have focused on the jobs bill and regulatory reform
Centrists who haven’t always sided with Obama have found themselves squarely behind him on Afghanistan.

“I think he’s on the mark,” said Rep. Zack Space (D-Ohio), a sophomore Blue Dog Democrat. “I honestly believe he’s doing the right thing.”

Whether it’s a supplemental, regular appropriations or “sense of Congress” vote, liberals say they will work to persuade as many Democrats as possible to oppose it.

“We’ll try to persuade people to vote against it,” said Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), who voted against the Afghanistan supplemental both times earlier this year.

“There will be a lot of outside pressure as well.”

Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.) switched to supporting the supplemental earlier this year at Pelosi’s urging. But he said this time he is firmly opposed.

“I think the time has come to stop it,” McDermott said. “I’ve never been comfortable with this war from the start. It always seemed ill-defined.”

But he won’t find many opponents among the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), of which Obama was once a member. Though CBC members were strongly against Bush’s moves in Iraq, many appear to be giving Obama the benefit of the doubt.

“I think there needs to be a lot of deference to commanders in the field,” said Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.).

“The president has to be given time for his policies to work,” added Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.) as he and Butterfield walked into a CBC meeting.

CBC Chairwoman Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) is perhaps the most ardent war opponent in Congress, as the lone vote against the 2001 Afghanistan war. But even she spoke deferentially about Obama’s plan.

“I thought it was a very thoughtful and compelling speech,” Lee said. “But I’m totally opposed to his decision to escalate the war.”

And she’s not trying to whip up her colleagues to vote against the troop buildup.

“We haven’t even heard if there will be a vote,” Lee said.

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