Congress faces a formidable summer agenda on issues ranging from an overhaul of financial regulation to oversight of the Gulf oil spill. But nothing is as wrenching for the Democratic majority as upcoming votes to fund the surge of US forces in Afghanistan.
Most of the more than $1 trillion to fund the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan passed the Congress as "emergency" spending – that is, funded off-budget. In the Bush years, these were typically big, bipartisan votes, with Republican votes a given.
But this year, House Democrats may again have to find the votes for Afghanistan war spending in their own ranks – and in the shadow of highly volatile midterm elections.
"Some two-thirds of Democrats who supported the president in 2008 now oppose the president's Afghan policy," says former Rep. Tom Andrews (D) of Maine, national director of the Win Without War Coalition. "The base that was so important to victories in 2008 and 2006 [is] going to be critically needed in 2010 and may not be there."
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi calls these votes to send troops into a war that many in her caucus campaigned to end the toughest of her speakership – votes of conscience. "We present the facts, and members make their own decision," she said after her visit to Afghanistan last month.
The last defense supplemental for funding the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan came just weeks into the new Obama administration in 2009, and House Democrats struggled to pass it. The president said it would be his last wartime supplemental and that future wartime spending would be on-budget.
But despite Republican support for the Obama strategy of a "surge" in Afghanistan, House GOP leaders in 2009 forced Democrats to find all but six of the votes for new war spending from within their own ranks. It could happen again.
In the first defense supplemental of the Obama administration, House Republicans objected to the $5 billion in funding for the International Monetary Fund in the bill and opposed it, 170 to 6. House Democrats struggled to find 39 votes from the 71-member Out-of-Iraq caucus to pass it, 226 to 202.
Now, GOP leaders are threatening to vote against President Obama's latest war funding request over objections to a $23 billion add-on to prevent more layoffs of teachers.
"If Democrats plan to load this up with a lot of extra spending on issues that don't relate to supporting our troops or true emergencies, like Haiti, I'd expect a lot of Republicans to oppose it," said Kevin Smith, a spokesman for House Republican leader John Boehner, last week.
In a briefing with reporters on Wednesday House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D) of Maryland said the House will work with the Senate version of the war funding bill and not mark up a separate version of its own. That announcement would appear to limit prospects for $23 billion in additional education funding. But Republican leaders are withholding judgment. "We'll have to see what they actually bring to the floor," says Michael Steel, a spokesman for GOP leader Boehner.
Leaders in neither party want to see a full debate over whether the US strategy in Afghanistan – a war launched by a Republican president and stepped-up by a Democrat – is necessary to national security.
Democrats worry that a strong opposition to the war could weaken Mr. Obama or make them appear weak on defense. To date, the military policy debate has focused on issues such as whether to end the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy for openly gay service men and women or whether Congress should buck the Pentagon and fund a second jet engine for the F-35 fighter.
"The Afghan war is not a pressing concern for most Americans. Not many incumbents in Congress will face much scrutiny on the issue of the war this fall, but that could change if we have a lot of casualties this summer in Kandahar," says Matthew Hoh, a former State Department official and Iraq combat veteran who resigned from the Foreign Service in protest over US policy in Afghanistan.
"Far too many members of Congress are unwilling to accept that it is their role to ask the hard questions for fear of being seen as not supportive of the troops. The war debate is mainly among Democratic members on the House side," he adds.
Obama is asking Congress for another $33 billion, mainly to move 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan, where the largest operation since the war started – to secure Kandahar – is under way.
For the past eight years, supplemental defense bills have passed the Senate with at least 90 votes.
"Our military is about to undertake the most important mission in the entire Afghan conflict," said Senate majority leader Harry Reid in a briefing before the May 27 Senate vote on a supplemental war-funding measure. "We've asked tens of thousands of our troops to defend our country [and] the people of Afghanistan, and defeat Al Qaeda and other terrorists who train abroad and plot to kill us at home."
The Senate passed a $58.8 billion supplemental spending bill, 67 to 28. In addition to the $33 billion in war spending, the bill includes $5.1 billion for disaster relief for past hurricanes, floods, and wildfires, as well as an initial $68 million for the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and $13.4 billion for Vietnam War veterans exposed to Agent Orange.
Moreover, a proposal by Sen. Russ Feingold (D) of Wisconsin to mandate a nonbinding timetable to end US deployment in Afghanistan won 18 votes, including from three of the top four Senate Democratic leaders – Sens. Richard Durbin of Illinois, Charles Schumer of New York, and Patty Murray of Washington.
Obama has committed to begin removing US forces from Afghanistan by June 2011 – a transition that Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton estimates will take three to five years.
Backers say the argument for such a measure is fiscal as well as strategic. "In fairness, unlike his predecessor, President Obama has attempted to provide realistic budget estimates for war costs in the current and the next fiscal years. But beyond FY2011, the president's budget numbers are unrealistically low," said Senator Feingold during the Senate floor debate.