- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 26, 2009

President Obama’s $83.4 billion war-spending bill is headed for an unexpectedly tough time on Capitol Hill, where Republicans are scrutinizing the funding priorities and rank-and-file Democrats want to include performance benchmarks for the Afghanistan mission.

Despite bipartisan support for Mr. Obama’s war policy in Iraq and Afghanistan, Republicans are taking a stand against the more than $81 million requested to shut down the prison camp at U.S. Naval Base Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell last week railed against the administration’s move to close the outpost without a plan to relocate the roughly 240 terrorism suspects now locked up on the island.

“Americans want some assurances that closing Guantanamo won’t make them less safe, and for good reason,” the Kentucky Republican said. “Guantanamo currently houses some of the most dangerous men alive. These are men who are proud of the innocent lives they’ve taken and who want to return to terrorism.”

He noted that the Defense Department has confirmed that 18 former detainees had returned to the battlefield and at least 40 more are suspected to have rejoined terrorism networks.

The debate of policy priorities and performance benchmarks may slow down the legislation and possibly succeed in reshaping the spending plan, but even antiwar lawmakers determined to vote against the bill expect it will ultimately win passage.

Mr. Obama, who is fulfilling a campaign promise with moves to close the prison camp by January 2010, faces stiff resistance to bringing detainees into the United States. Most other countries don’t want to take them in, either.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, dismissed the Republicans’ objections as another example of what Democrats have been characterizing as partisan obstructionism.

“It would be highly irresponsible for Republicans to attempt to hold up funding as part of their just-say-no strategy,” Reid spokesman Jim Manley said.

Republicans, who have made criticism of massive new spending the cornerstone of their opposition to Mr. Obama and the Democrat-led Congress, also are ready to pounce on any funding not directly linked to the war effort.

“It’s possible we’ll get into an arm-wrestling fight over spending,” said Sen. Claire McCaskill, Missouri Democrat.

Mrs. McCaskill and fellow lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are eager to restore some of the military budget cuts announced by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, such as ending production of the F-22 fighter jet. The war supplemental is an attractive vehicle for retaining the programs and the jobs they create in some lawmakers’ home states.

Mrs. McCaskill said she would push to include funds for more C-17 transport planes that Mr. Gates put on the chopping block. “They’re flying the wings off of them,” she said of the old C-17s that are a U.S. workhorse in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Rep. John P. Murtha, chairman of the Appropriations’ defense subcommittee, who will play a lead role writing the war- spending bill, also is a fan of buying more C-17s for the war effort.

The airplanes and other additions Mr. Murtha has in mind for the bill, however, are expected to boost the price tag by at least $10 billion.

Another debate is brewing over performance benchmarks some Democrats want attached to the spending bill, giving a nod to the party’s antiwar base. Democrats successfully fought to include benchmarks for success in Iraq to former President George W. Bush’s war funding.

“The United States needs to take a new direction in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and that direction is out,” said Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich, Ohio Democrat. “When will the administration recognize that [Afghanistan] has been disintegrating for some time, and that it puts us at risk of an expanded war?”

Mr. Kucinich said the effort to include benchmarks likely would fail owing to opposition from the Democratic leadership. But he said he and his antiwar colleagues would put up a fight during debate.

On the other side of the Capitol, Sen. Ben Nelson, Nebraska Democrat, is pressing for criteria to gauge U.S. success in Afghanistan.

“Senator Nelson has been working with the administration and will continue to work with the administration to develop progress measures for Afghanistan,” Nelson spokesman Clay Westrope said. “Once the administration develops these measures, Senator Nelson will review them to see if anything further is required to fully assess progress in Afghanistan.”

Mr. Obama, who is expected to present the administration’s own performance measures this week, does not want benchmarks written by Congress tacked onto the war funds.

Mr. Obama’s staunch criticism of the Iraq war endeared him to the Democratic Party’s liberal base and helped fuel his run for president. Once elected, he has followed through on his promise for a U.S. pullout from Iraq, announcing plans for a near-complete withdrawal of combat troops by August 2010.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, has ruled out performance benchmarks for Afghanistan.

“I don’t know that we’ll have benchmarks. I think the president has presented a policy that this funding would support,” she told reporters on Capitol Hill. “It is self-evident that the money we put into Afghanistan should produce some results over a period of time.”

The president requested the extra war spending April 9. About $75 billion would go to the Pentagon, and most of the remaining funds would go to war-related diplomatic efforts in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The request would double spending on the Iraq and Afghanistan wars so far this year and pay for military operations into the fall. If approved, it would boost 2009 war spending to about $150 billion, which is about $40 billion less than what the U.S. spent on the wars in 2008 and about $20 billion less than in 2007.

Mr. Obama, who as a senator criticized the Bush administration for paying for the wars with supplemental spending bills that increase federal debt, promised that future request would be part of the regular budget.

Mr. Obama’s current request would push the cost of the wars to nearly $1 trillion since the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan after the Sept. 11 attacks, according to the Congressional Research Service.

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