War bill vote to be less dramatic than ’09

The Obama administration may have an easier time wrangling votes from House Democrats for a bill to fund the Afghanistan war, 10 months after Republican opposition nearly caused the president an embarrassing legislative defeat.

A $33 billion supplemental military spending bill is set to be considered later this month, and Democrats predict that party leaders will not have to scramble for votes from anti-war lawmakers as they did the last time a war funding bill came to the floor, in June 2009.

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Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) vowed in December that she would not whip votes for an Afghanistan supplemental spending bill again. Her comments came in the wake of intense pressure she applied on war opponents to support an appropriations measure that also included money for the International Monetary Fund.

The inclusion of the IMF funds prompted Republicans — most of whom are supportive of the Afghanistan war — to vote against the bill en masse, jeopardizing its passage. Needing more Democratic support, House leaders and Obama aides pressured 20 anti-war members to flip their original “no” votes to “yes” on the final bill.

Pelosi later labeled her whipping on the 2009 Afghanistan measure the “hardest sell.” The final bill passed 226-202 with 32 Democrats voting no and all but five House Republicans rejecting it.

Pressed in December on whether Congress in 2010 would approve of new funds for Obama’s surge of 30,000 troops in Afghanistan, Pelosi suggested the onus was on the commander in chief.

“The president’s going to have to make his case,” Pelosi said at the time.

House lawmakers said a number of factors are different this time around. The most significant non-defense item being considered for the measure is disaster relief for Haiti, which GOP leaders have indicated they would support. And demonstrable progress on the ground in Afghanistan, including the capture or killing of several top al Qaeda leaders, could bring more Democrats on board.

“It’ll be a little easier because things are going better,” Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) said. “It’s hard to argue against success.”

Cohen voted against the initial House supplemental bill last year before supporting the final version when the vote became tight. He said he’s undecided on the upcoming measure. “I think we’re making some progress,” he said.

The possible inclusion of money for Haiti could also smooth the way. “Obviously Haiti is important to me,” said Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.), another no-to-yes switch in 2009. Weiner said he would wait to see what was in the bill before determining his vote. But, he added, “I want the president to be successful.”

Rep. Eric Cantor (Va.), the GOP whip, told The Hill on Wednesday that the Republican leadership would likely support a supplemental bill either on its own or with funds for Haiti. But he warned Democrats not to go any further with attachments. “Anything beyond that we would have difficulty supporting,” he said.

A spokesman for Pelosi said her position had not changed from December when she said she would not pressure members to vote one way or the other on war funding measures.

“Issues of war are a matter of conscience, and members will vote accordingly,” Pelosi spokesman Nadeam Elshami said.

The House Appropriations Committee is expected to consider the supplemental next week. The military has said it needs the money by the spring, although it could be pushed to June or early July. The July 4 recess is seen as a final deadline for having the bill signed by the president.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates last month urged speedy passage of the legislation to “prevent costly and counterproductive disruptions to the department’s operations.”

Lawmakers and aides cautioned that final decisions about what to include in the supplemental had not been made, and the House leadership could hold a separate vote on the Haiti funding.

While military progress in Afghanistan could help win votes for the appropriations bill, the recent statements of President Hamid Karzai could have the opposite effect.

Karzai’s inflammatory comments, including a suggestion that he would join the Taliban, have enraged lawmakers and sparked a rift between Karzai and the Obama administration.

“They’re outrageous,” Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) said, calling the Karzai statements “an insult to the American people.” He said he was inclined to vote against the funding bill but would wait to see the legislation before deciding.

Another complication could come from liberals who want Obama to adopt a timeline for withdrawing American troops from Afghanistan.

Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.), Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) and Rep. Walter Jones (R-N.C.) have introduced legislation that would require the president to submit a plan with a “flexible timetable” to draw down forces. McGovern has said he hasn’t decided whether to try to attach the bill to the supplemental funding legislation.

Any timetable for withdrawal would almost certainly meet near-unanimous opposition from Republicans.

Obama has called for a drawdown “goal” of U.S. troops starting in July 2011.  

Last month, 65 House members, including five Republicans, voted in favor of a resolution authored by Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) to remove all U.S. troops from Afghanistan.

Roxana Tiron contributed to this article.