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Obama wins war-funding vote despite Democratic defections

The House easily approves a $97-billion national security package that will fund operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, but 51 Democrats vote no.

May 15, 2009|Janet Hook

WASHINGTON — President Obama on Thursday won decisive House approval for money to escalate U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but the victory obscured anxiety within his party about the course he is taking in the war-torn region.

Some Democrats -- as opponents of President Bush's war in Iraq -- see the same perils in the new administration's military moves.

"This is a bill that I have very little confidence in," Rep. David R. Obey (D-Wis.), an outspoken liberal, said of the $97-billion measure to finance military operations in the region. "But we have a responsibility to give a new president who did not get us into this mess the opportunity to get us out of it."

Despite qualms at the highest levels of the Democratic caucus -- Obey is chairman of the powerful Appropriations Committee -- the House voted 368 to 60 for the funding.

The 51 Democrats who voted against the bill included liberal lawmakers who consistently have voted against the Iraq war, critics who believe Obama's strategy in Afghanistan is too vague and others who did not want to spend so much abroad when the U.S. economy is in bad shape.

"It's time for Americans to come to our senses," said Rep. Marcy Kaptur, a Democrat from recession-ravaged Ohio. "Isn't it time to pay more attention to the fraying economy in our homeland?"

Still, the vote was a rare show of bipartisanship, marking the first time Obama has relied on House Republicans to make up for defections in his own party on a major bill.

"Today we have before us our first real opportunity to come together and work in a bipartisan way," said Rep. David Dreier (R-San Dimas).

Many of the Democrats who backed the bill did so largely as a vote of confidence in Obama.

Rep. Melvin Watt (D-N.C.) said he had to hold his nose to vote for the bill. "A year from now," he said, "I'll be asking some serious questions."

The bill also laid bare Democrats' anxiety about Obama's failure to present a clear plan for closing the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, detention facility and relocating terrorism suspects and other detainees.

The measure passed Thursday did not include $80 million that the administration had requested to pay the cost of closing Guantanamo, and lawmakers added a last-minute ban on moving detainees to American soil until two months after Obama submits a plan for their relocation. That helped sideline a Republican effort to impose even bigger obstacles to closing the facility.

The bill provides money for U.S. operations in Iraq ahead of the planned withdrawal of most U.S. combat troops by mid-2010. It also finances Obama's strategy of adding 21,000 U.S. troops and trainers in Afghanistan, and includes $400 million for counterinsurgency training in Pakistan.

Other provisions of the bill include $2 billion for responding to the flu outbreak -- about $500 million more than the administration requested -- even as the recent wave of so-called swine flu seems to be waning.

A similar bill was approved Thursday by the Senate Appropriations Committee and is expected to go to the Senate floor next week. The Senate bill includes money for closing Guantanamo but specifies that it cannot be used until the administration produces a plan for relocating detainees.

The Senate panel also added money requested by the administration for the International Monetary Fund to fulfill a commitment Obama made at a recent European summit. Some Republicans argued that the money did not belong in the war-funding bill and warned that the addition could undermine GOP support.

Democratic critics in the House and Senate have objected to giving more aid to Afghanistan and Pakistan without setting preconditions or benchmarks for progress by their governments. The administration and its supporters have argued against tying Obama's hands.

That is a reversal for Democrats, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), who had demanded that Bush set such benchmarks in Iraq.

Although no binding conditions were set, the House bill requires the administration to report on political and military progress in the region by February.

"The governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan -- they are both hugely unreliable reeds to lean on," Obey said. "They are weak; they are chaotic; they appear to lack the cohesion and effectiveness to turn the countries around."

Other Democrats were more optimistic. They said their confidence in Obama's judgment got a big boost earlier this week when he replaced the commander of military operations in Afghanistan.

"We now have a leader in the White House who understands the challenges before us in Afghanistan," said Rep. Tom Perriello (D-Va.), who was a national security consultant there before his election to Congress. "The era of arbitrary power and the Bush Doctrine ended with the 2008 election."

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janet.hook@latimes.com

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