$4B to sweeten Iraq bill

House Democratic leaders will add nearly $4 billion for farmers to a bill funding military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan to attract conservative Democrats concerned that the measure would wrongly constrict President Bush’s power as commander in chief.

Democrats may also add money for children’s health insurance in the hope of winning the votes of Republicans such as Illinois Reps. Mark Kirk (R) and Judy Biggert (R), whose home state faces a $240 million deficit in its State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP).

Rep. Collin Peterson (D-Minn.), chairman of the House Agriculture Committee and a senior member of the Blue Dog Coalition of some 45 conservative Democrats, said, “I don’t think the supplemental will pass if we don’t” add disaster-relief funds. Without farm-relief funds the Iraq-Afghanistan bill would lose “quite a few” Blue Dog votes, said Peterson. “They’d lose mine,” he added.

Republican House leaders anticipated such sweeteners. At yesterday’s weekly meeting of the House Republican Conference, Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) urged colleagues not to be lured by money for agriculture and health insurance, said two lawmakers who attended the meeting.

Boehner warned his colleagues to remember the bigger picture of troop funding.

A lawmaker who attended a meeting of Blue Dogs Tuesday said half of the conservative Democrats who were there raised concerns about language that Defense Appropriations subcommittee Chairman John Murtha (D-Pa.) said he would include in the supplemental.

Murtha said he would include several requirements: giving soldiers returning from the war at least a year of rest before redeployment; limiting the Pentagon’s ability to extend enlistments, the so-called stop-loss policy; and stopping the Pentagon from extending combat tours.

Murtha also said his bill would enforce equipment and training standards for troops.

Conservative Democrats met before the whole House Democratic Caucus convened to discuss war funding. Lawmakers at the second meeting failed to reach agreement because liberal lawmakers demanded that strict conditions be attached to funding while conservatives argued against interfering with Bush’s powers of command.

“I don’t think we should be interfering with military strategy,” said Rep. John Tanner (D-Tenn.), a leading Blue Dog, when asked about Murtha’s proposed restrictions.

House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.) has said he may add waivers to the military bill that would allow the Department of Defense to circumvent Murtha’s proposed restrictions, according to press reports.

But Murtha has not yet agreed to including these.

Rep. Bill Young (R-Fla.), ranking Republican on the Defense Appropriations subcommittee, said he and Murtha discussed the details of the supplemental funding bill Tuesday. Murtha said he would include his restrictions and did not mention waivers, Young said. Young told Murtha he opposed the restrictions.

If Republican members of the Appropriations Committee and a significant number of Blue Dogs oppose the bill, it may not pass the House, seriously embarrassing the Democratic leadership.

Additional agriculture spending could make it harder for conservative Democrats from rural districts to oppose the war-funding bill. Murtha and Peterson said farm-relief funds would be added.

Peterson cited $4 billion to pay for disasters such as droughts, floods, frosts and snowstorms that affected farmers in about half of all states in 2005 and 2006. In California, farmers lost four-fifths of their orange crop to frost, he said. But farmers could only apply for relief for one of the two years, he added.   

Murtha said Blue Dogs have not told him directly of their concerns, but extra agriculture funds could keep them from defecting. Another senior Democrat on Appropriations agreed that “it would help.”

Murtha said he and Young reached agreement on military funding levels. The supplemental would include at least $93.7 billion for troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. Appropriators may grant requests to allocate an extra billion for Afghanistan, which would boost the defense total to $94.7 billion, he added.

Prospects for extra children’s health insurance funding were less certain, Murtha said. Appropriators may also include $3.4 billion Bush has requested for Hurricane Katrina recovery costs.

Murtha, Obey, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif,), Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and other Democrats met yesterday in an office off the House floor to discuss the supplemental.

As reporters converged on Murtha after the meeting, Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.) waved his arms at the lawmaker to remind him of the new watchword: “Consensus.”

“Don’t talk to the press,” said Emanuel half-jokingly as he tried to catch Murtha’s attention.

But Murtha has remained steadfast about putting restrictions on the president.

“We will have three restrictive amendments,” he said.