War Funding, Farm Bill Leave Congress in Gridlock
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Before going back to their districts yesterday for a two-week Thanksgiving break, the nation's lawmakers had quite a pre-holiday partisan fight. It was over everything - from money for the war in Iraq to freeing the farm bill that's been impaled on a procedural pitchfork. There were veto threats from the White House for Republican-minority filibusters and promises from the ruling Democrats that everything might eventually work out.
NPR's David Welna had a ringside seat to the U.S. Capitol.
DAVID WELNA: With House members having already left town, Senate Democrats yesterday tried taking up an Iraq War-funding bill the House had narrowly passed Wednesday. It was a so-called bridge fund for $50 billion, far less than the nearly $200 billion President Bush wants.
It also had a big string attached - the stated goal of bringing most U.S. troops home by December of next year. But Republicans kept Democrats from getting the 60 votes needed to consider the bill, and Arizona's Jon Kyl declared the time had come to get real.
Senator JON KYL (Republican, Arizona): The Democrat leaders are going to have to finally swallow their political pride here I guess and provide funding for the troops.
WELNA: Connecticut Democrat and presidential contender Chris Dodd flew all the way back from a candidate's debate in Las Vegas to vote. He, too, voted against the bridge fund, the only Democrat to do so, but because he found the strings attached to the bill to be too weak.
Senator CHRIS DODD (Democrat, Connecticut): I just find that sort of we're wasting our time, I mean, to a large degree. And I think it's - and it's not clear to people out there what this all means. And most people I'm talking to believe this thing ought to be coming to an end and stopping it.
WELNA: It's not at all clear whether Democrats will take another stamp this year at funding a war most of them oppose. Majority Leader Harry Reid said that there is no more war money; President Bush will have to answer for that.
Senator HARRY REID (Democrat, Nevada; Majority Leader): He had the offer of getting another 50 billion with a few accountability standards and that he refused that. So we'll see what happens. We may have to wait until after the first year.
WELNA: Four Republicans voted with Democrats to have war money with strings attached. One of them was Maine's Olympia Snowe, who afterwards bemoaned a climate of intransigence in the Capitol.
Senator OLYMPIA SNOWE (Republican, Maryland): I think it's tragic. And I think it's just really gets back to illustrating the poisonous, partisan, polarizing atmosphere that's enveloped the Congress and in the Senate.
WELNA: The Iraq vote followed a 10-day long Republican filibuster of a big farm bill. Senate Democrats tried to end that filibuster, but Republican Leader Mitch McConnell kept his troops in line.
Senator MITCH McCONNELL (Republican, Kentucky; Minority Leader): The farm bill will not pass today because the games have not stopped. But I will confidently predict, Mr. President, at some point, they will stop.
WELNA: Perhaps. But when Democrats tried bringing up other bills dealing with the subprime lending crisis and affixed to the alternative minimum tax, McConnell seemed to be repeating a mantra.
Sen. McCONNELL: Mr. President, I object.
WELNA: And so a pile of bills is stalled in the Senate, and a spade of presidential veto threats awaits others, including most of the annual spending bills.
Montana Democrat Max Baucus lamented the standoff.
Senator MAX BAUCUS (Democrat, Montana): And it looks like now we're going to wait until certainly after Thanksgiving. It looks like probably we have to wait until the end of the year. Who knows when? Maybe a day before Christmas. And that's not the way to do business around here.
WELNA: But that's often the way things do get done here. At the very last minute, there was one grace note as senators left town. Alaska Republican Ted Stevens rose on the Senate floor to commemorate West Virginia Democrat Robert Byrd's 90th birthday.
Senator TED STEVENS (Republican, Alaska): I've come here today to congratulate the senator from West Virginia, not only for his service to our nation and to the Senate, for his longevity. He's the only senator that is older than I am.
WELNA: Stevens himself turns 84 tomorrow.
David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.