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Tipping Point Approaches for Two Giant Issues

March 4, 2007 - by Donny Shaw

In Congress this week, the Senate and House of Representatives will be at opposite ends of highly controversial legislation. By the end of the week, when the Senate hopes to put S.4, a major Homeland Security bill to implement the unfinished recommendations of the 9/11 commission, to a final vote and the House Appropriations Committee begins to take up President Bush’s $100 billion-plus supplemental war funding request, Congress will be holding a couple of the most important issues of our time in the palm of its collective hand.

Before the Senate left for the weekend, Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) scheduled a vote for Tuesday on two amendments to the Homeland Security bill to alter the provision in the bill that would give collective-bargaining rights to TSA officers. This is the provision in the bill, which the Senate has spent the last week debating, that has prompted President Bush to threaten a veto of the entire thing. Bush and the provision’s opponents in the Senate argue that it would weaken the TSA’s ability to adapt to ever-changing terrorist threats.

On Tuesday, Senators will vote first on an amendment offered by Claire McCaskill (D-MO) that would weaken the collective-bargaining provision by allowing TSA authorities to “take whatever actions” are necessary in emergency situations. This vote will be followed by another on an amendment by Jim DeMint (R-SC) (pictured at right) that would cut the collective-bargaining provision from the bill entirely.

There has been no official word yet from President Bush as to whether or not McCaskill’s proposal would be enough of a compromise to quell his threatened veto. This AP article points out that Republicans in the Senate are against McCaskill’s compromise amendment because it would still provide Democrats with what Republicans believe they are after in the first place: campaign contributions:

>He [DeMint] noted that unionizing the more than 45,000 TSA screeners would give labor unions a windfall of millions of dollars in dues _ which in turn would translate into more campaign dollars for Democrats. For those and logistical reasons, DeMint urged his colleagues to support eliminating the provision and killing McCaskill’s amendment.

Also up for debate with this bill is another controversial provision concerning the distribution of Homeland Security grants. The bill as it is written now, would reduce the current percentage of available Homeland Security grant money that is guaranteed to each state from 0.75 to 0.45. The remaining surplus would then be distributed to states based on risk, with more money going to states with large urban areas and other high-risk factors. A bipartisan group of Senators representing states with large urban areas are supporting an amendment that would further reduce the minimum guarantee to 0.25, freeing up even more money for their high-risk states. Votes on this issue will essentially pit senators from small states against those from larger states.

Near the end of the week, as this bill is being put to a final vote , the House Appropriations Committee will be beginning their work on President Bush’s supplemental war funding request. The President has requested $93.4 billion to fund the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but after the committee is done with it, the bill may be for upwards of $110 billion.

House lawmakers have been looking towards this war supplemental bill since mid-February, when the continuing resolution to fund much of the government was passed. The continuing resolution had to be approved quickly to avoid a partial shutdown of the government. Because their was not much time to work out the details, many federal programs were shortchanged by it.

The war supplemental bill is expected to include funding for the military’s Base Realignment and Closures Program (BRAC), State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP), rural county payments for communities affected by declining timber sales, agricultural disaster aid, rail, transit, port and cargo security, and other areas.

But even more important than the funds that are going to be appropriated by the bill, is the language that it will include for how President Bush can use these funds in Iraq.

A couple of weeks ago, a plan of John Murtha’s (D-PA) was gaining support from an increasing amount of Representatives who are opposed to the war, including Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA). Basically, the plan would place so many requirements on troop readiness that it would actually be impossible to find enough qualifying soldiers to be deployed under Bush’s plan to increase American troops in Iraq by 21,500. Since then, Murtha’s plan has increasingly been at the center of a growing division among Representatives who oppose the war. Conservative House Democrats are afraid that the plan would leave them open to charges of troop abandonment. They have offered an alternative to Murtha’s plan that would allow the President to waive the troop readiness requirement, but liberal Democrats are unsatisfied by this new plan. They want to pass legislation that will actually limit the war.

As soon as House Democrats begin to coalesce around a plan for Iraq, it will likely be included in this war supplemental bill.
The ensuing vote on this bill will be more politically potent than the last Iraq vote in the House. This time the vote will be attached to a funding bill, bringing it to the next level of Congressional influence: the power of the purse.

subscription-only Congress Daily:

>Moderates in the caucus might be the only faction to come out relatively unscathed from what is sure to be a difficult vote, as they will have at least some political cover on the issue without the waiver. Republican leaders are whipping their members to oppose the bill if it ties Bush’s hands or contains items unrelated to the war effort and rebuilding costs. But Republicans would be hard-pressed to vote against a bill funding the troops lest they hand Democrats a campaign issue.

Photo of Manhattan by James Tourtellotte, by way of The Week in Congress.

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