Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are signaling that the White House can expect a struggle over this year's $108 billion war-funding request.
As ever, the bill that funds the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan sets up a test of whether lawmakers can rally enough votes to force a change of course. So far, all efforts to mandate a timetable to end the war have failed.
But this year, the war supplemental is also one of the few spending bills likely to pass in the final months of the 110th Congress. That makes it a magnet for other spending priorities on Capitol Hill.
Democrats are pulling together a package of up to $30 billion to boost the economy. President Bush says he will veto any bill that includes funding that he did not request or a timetable for a US exit from Iraq.
"Part of what's complicating the bill this year is that members get frustrated," says Jim Nussle, director of the Office of Management and Budget. "They see a legislative train leaving the station and they say: I've got to get my priority onto this bill."
A top priority for many lawmakers is using the war-funding bill to leverage more investment at home, including extended unemployment insurance for some 7.8 million Americans out of work and more federal spending on roads, rail, bridges, water projects, and local law enforcement.
"This year, we will once again take good care of our troops. But we must also invest in our own economy to take care of our people here at home," said Sen. Robert Byrd (D) of West Virginia, who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee.
Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D) of Maryland wants Congress to use the defense supplemental bill to restore $560 million in grants for local law enforcement to help fight crime. The Bush administration has spent $5 billion over the last couple of years to fund the training of Iraqi police, but "I need the money to make sure that our local law enforcement, the thin blue line, gets the money that they need to fight violent crime," she said at a hearing with OMB Director Nussle last week.
Nussle responded that the problem could have been handled in the 2008 appropriations process but was underfunded by the Congress. "It was underfunded because you had a veto threat," she said.
With a head count in the Senate well short of what is needed to override a presidential veto, Democrats are talking openly of postponing most spending bills for fiscal year 2009 until there is a new president in the White House and a new Congress. The new fiscal year begins Oct. 1.
But Republicans, too, are pushing for policy and spending adjustments in the president's proposed war-funding bill. Last week, Sen. Susan Collins (R) of Maine joined Democrats Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Evan Bayh of Indiana in calling for restructuring US funds to Iraq as a loan, rather than a grant.
With oil prices soaring, Iraq should be using its own budget surpluses to fund reconstruction, these critics say. As things stand now, the $4.8 billion for rebuilding Iraq in the FY 2008 war-spending bill is to be funded out of US deficits.
"The Iraqis have reaped a windfall that should be tapped to pay more of the expenses of this war," says Senator Collins.
Citing the billions of Iraq reconstruction dollars that have been reportedly "stolen, misplaced, lost, or in some bank account that we don't know about," Sen. Judd Gregg (R) of New Hampshire says that "any dollars the US spends on reconstruction in Iraq should be matched one-for-one by the Iraqi government."
"It does seem to me that Iraq is not bearing a fair portion of the load here," he said at the April 16 hearing.
Meanwhile, antiwar groups are ramping up for a national "Iraq/recession campaign," which makes the case that the war has caused the economic downturn. "The money being spent on the war should be spent instead on getting us out of a nasty recession and helping those who are hurting because of it," said Nita Chaudhary, campaign director for MoveOn.org Political Action, in a statement.