Friday, March 30, 2007

House and Senate negotiators won’t meet to hammer out a final emergency war-funding bill until Congress’ spring break ends April 16 — a day after Pentagon officials say money starts running out for U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid balked at the deadline yesterday and cited a congressional report that showed war funds will not expire until July.

“This study confirms that the president is once again attempting to mislead the public and create an artificial atmosphere of anxiety,” said Mr. Reid, Nevada Democrat. “He is using scare tactics to defeat bipartisan legislation that would change course in Iraq.”

The report by the Congressional Research Service, the legislature’s public policy research arm, said the military could temporarily bridge a funding gap by transferring money from other accounts.

Democratic aides on both sides of the Capitol do not expect a bill to reach President Bush’s desk until late April, after military officials say a lack of money will disrupt troop training, equipment repair and eventually prolong war-zone deployments.

Mr. Bush — who has vowed to veto the bill over its timetable for a troop withdrawal from Iraq — is critical of lawmakers taking a spring break now but he hasn’t discussed recalling them to finish the bill, a White House spokeswoman said.

“The president was surprised to learn that Congress went on vacation today, and that the House didn’t bother to appoint any conferees … to help try to reconcile the differences between the Senate and the House bills,” spokeswoman Dana Perino said at a press briefing.

“And every day that the Congress fails to act on this request causes our military hardship and impacts readiness,” she said.

Republicans say they have the votes to sustain a veto, and the narrow passage of both bills indicates they can. Two-thirds of each chamber must vote to override a veto.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office confirmed she had not named a conference committee to merge the bills, both of which contain veto-provoking pullout deadlines and about $20 billion in non-war spending, including many pork barrel projects.

“I don’t think you can call it a delay when the Senate just passed their version yesterday,” said Drew Hammill, spokesman for Mrs. Pelosi, California Democrat.

He said key lawmakers — Rep. David R. Obey, Wisconsin Democrat and chairman of the Appropriations Committee, and Rep. John P. Murtha, Pennsylvania Democrat and chairman of the defense appropriations subcommittee — will be working on the bill during the break.

Mr. Obey also is expected to be in contact with his Senate counterpart, Democrat Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia, who has been named for the conference committee.

Senate leaders already have assigned 29 members — 15 Democrats and 14 Republicans — to the committee.

House leaders have not indicated how many members they will name.

Staff should finish preparing the bills for the members next week, Senate Appropriations Committee spokesman Tom Gavin said.

The Senate reconvenes April 10 and the House returns April 16.

In response to Mr. Reid’s challenging the funding deadline, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell released a letter he received this week from Army Chief of Staff Gen. Peter J. Schoomaker and acting Secretary of the Army Pete Geren.

“We are particularly concerned as Congress is set to recess until mid-April without enacting this essential legislation,” they said. “Without approval of the supplemental funds in April, we will be forced to take increasingly draconian measures which will impact Army readiness and impose hardships on our soldiers and their families.”

Congress previously was provided an April 15 deadline by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The Senate’s $123 billion bill, passed Thursday by a 51-47 vote, mandates that troops start to pull out 120 days after enactment with a goal of complete withdrawal by next March.

The House bill, passed last week by a 218-212 vote, carries a $124 billion price tag and sets a September 2008 deadline to get all combat troops out of Iraq.

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