- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 29, 2013

One casualty of Congress’ spending fight could be Iraqi translators who helped the U.S. during that nation’s war, but whose visa applications are about to stall unless Congress can extend a Sept. 30 deadline written into law.

House Republicans, in action Saturday, included language to extend the deadline for applications into December as part of their changes to the stopgap spending bill the GOP powered through, which also tries to roll back parts of President Obama’s health care law.

But Senate Democrats have said they won’t accept any changes to Obamacare, and since those changes are combined with the visa issue, that leaves the Iraqi translators facing a potential crisis.

Spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin, the second-ranking Democrat in the chamber, didn’t return messages over the weekend asking about the situation.

The visas are meant to try to help translators escape from a country where their cooperation with U.S. troops leaves many of them in danger.

Thousands of Iraqis have applied and waited years as the State Department has run applicants and their relatives through a complicated series of background checks. The process has stretched from six weeks into a two-year ordeal, according to lawyers at the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project.

One State Department official told The Washington Times that if the authority for the visas lapses Monday, those who have already applied and are in the approval process would have to start over.

Neither the House nor Senate included the renewed visa language in their initial spending bills.

A House Republican aide said the White House just recently made them aware of the need for an extension.

“This authority is necessary to ensure the visas continue for Iraqis who assisted the U.S. during the war, many of whom risked their lives to do so,” Rep. Harold Rogers, the Kentucky Republican who heads the House Appropriations Committee, said as he urged colleagues to vote for the GOP stopgap spending proposals Saturday.

There are other options available too.

The annual defense policy bill the House passed would also extend the visa period. But the Senate has yet to act on its version of the bill, and in recent years Congress has put a final compromise off until December.

In addition to adding in the visa language, House Republicans stripped another controversial part from their bill — $174,000 in taxpayer money that had been slated to go to the widow of Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg.

Paying a death gratuity to the spouses of lawmakers who pass away while in office has been a common practice, and both the House and Senate included the money in previous versions of their year-end spending bills.

But an ethics group questioned the payout to Bonnie Englebardt Lautenberg, wife of the late Democratic senator, who is worth an estimated $56.8 million, according to Roll Call’s 2012 survey of lawmakers’ wealth.

As a gift, the money would be tax free.

Kristina Wong contributed to this report.

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