In McConnell tactic, veto pen is backstop

The Senate’s Republican leader yesterday left the door open for his conference to allow the Democrats’ emergency war supplemental to proceed to the president’s desk for a veto, even if the GOP fails in its bid to strip the measure’s target date for troop withdrawal.

Finishing the Senate supplemental this week is integral to preserving prompt funding for active-duty troops, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) told reporters. While McConnell and his fellow Republicans are confident that the Democrats’ 120-day window for the first redeployments from Iraq will not become law, the Kentuckian acknowledged the likely political endgame.

“The final bill is likely to have the offending language in it because that’s in the House version,” McConnell said. He added later: “If that’s to be in the final bill, which the majority will be able to determine in conference, we need time to re-pass the bill without the offending language.”

The growing probability that the $124 billion supplemental will continue on course for a veto raises the stakes for the GOP motion to strike the bill’s Iraq withdrawal language. That will be offered by Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) and could come to a vote as soon as today. The bill’s success may depend on whether Republicans try to remove the benchmarks for progress by the Iraqi government as well as the timeline for troop redeployment.

Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) supported the bill in committee after Democratic leaders added his benchmarks proposal. But he and Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) — the only two Democrats to oppose this month’s non-binding withdrawal resolution — are on record as ultimately opposing a fixed date for leaving Iraq.

“Public timetables are a problem for Sen. Pryor, and not funding the troops is a problem for Sen. Pryor,” Communications Director Michael Teague said. He predicted that keeping benchmarks in the bill “will be supported by everyone.”
Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.), who has sided with Republicans on every war vote thus far, said late Friday that the GOP’s motion to strike was unlikely to touch the Nelson benchmarks provision.

“In the end, it will pass without this [withdrawal] language in it,” Lieberman said, urging both parties to “declare a truce in the political wars” over Iraq.

As for Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), his goal is “to have the supplemental leave the floor with the withdrawal language in it,” said spokeswoman Liz Oxhorn. “As far as getting it to conference, the House version already contains Iraq language, so it will be an issue [regardless of the Senate outcome].”

The first floor fight, however, is shaping up over fiscal responsibility and ethics reform. Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) plans to seek unanimous passage of the earmark-disclosure rules that he added to this year’s ethics bill.

DeMint’s move is primarily aimed at focusing attention on what he considers Democrats’ disingenuousness because the conservative’s earmark-reporting rules would not technically apply to legislation already on the floor, such as the supplemental, which is already on the floor.

But if DeMint succeeds, the earmark-disclosure standard would go immediately into effect instead of waiting for conference with the House’s still-to-be-passed ethics statute, potentially rocking this year’s appropriations process.

“We’re a month into the [appropriations] debate now, and Democrats are already breaking their pledge for a timeout on earmarks,” DeMint spokesman Wesley Denton said.

DeMint will be joined by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) and other conservatives in moves to strike earmarks from the supplemental, including $25 million for spinach growers hit by E. coli and $50 million for security at the 2008 presidential conventions. Another earmark, $2 million to the University of Vermont, attracted particular GOP scrutiny because it was part of the 2007 appropriations process that Democrats halted in favor of a continuing resolution.

Appropriator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) added the earmark to continue a program championed by retired Sen. Jim Jeffords (I-Vt.), a Leahy spokesman said.

Once the GOP motion comes to a vote, which Reid has indicated he would not seek to stop, McConnell is in line to keep Nelson and Pryor in his camp if Republicans do not strike the benchmarks. That could trigger a replay of the Iraq vote earlier this month, when Sen. Gordon Smith (Ore.) was the only Republican to vote with Democrats and the majority fell short, 48-50.

“I’m not announcing a count, but I think the vote [on March 15] was certainly helpful, and generally members like to be as consistent as possible,” McConnell said yesterday.

Yet Reid could still win over Pryor and Nelson, who have not explicitly revealed their votes. The supplemental reflects changes requested by Pryor, focusing on a classified campaign plan for Iraq that includes non-public deadlines for withdrawal. Those changes would fall out if the GOP’s motion to strike succeeds.

Pryor believes the classified redeployment plan is “a good way to tell constituents we have a plan and at the same time keep troops safe in the field,” Teague said. “Right now we have nothing.”

Other Republicans whose votes are uncertain include Sens. Susan Collins (Maine), Chuck Hagel (Neb.) and Olympia Snowe (Maine). Snowe indicated she would back benchmarks in her statement following the Iraq vote earlier this month.
“It’s too early, and she’s waiting to see how it plays out,” Snowe spokesman David Snepp said. “She has always talked about conditions rather than timelines.”

A GOP agreement to send the supplemental to conference with the withdrawal language still attached would avert the risk of headlines and coverage depicting Republicans as obstructing the chamber’s will on Iraq. Such negative coverage frustrated the minority after they voted to block consideration of non-binding war resolutions earlier this year, but McConnell’s conference has pivoted on its message since then.

In fact, the supplemental report includes one provision tailor-made for McConnell’s support: language that would give Burma’s oppressed minority populations greater freedom to earn refugee status in the U.S. McConnell is a longtime supporter of Burmese human-rights groups.