House approves money for Afghan surge
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The House of Representatives approved funds on Thursday to pay for President Barack Obama's Afghanistan troop increase but also voted to signal growing unhappiness with the war among his fellow Democrats.
The House's Democratic leaders, who had procrastinated for weeks over the bill, did not act in time to get the $33 billion to the troops by July 4 as the Pentagon had requested.
An amendment demanding an exit timetable from Afghanistan failed, but got 162 votes, the biggest anti-war vote in the House on Afghanistan to date. All but nine of the supporters were Democrats, and included House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
House leaders added billions of dollars in non-military spending before passing the war funds, so the measure must now return to the Senate. It passed the troop funds and its own set of disaster relief add-ons in May.
Both chambers must agree to the same legislation before it can go to Obama for his signature into law. But the Senate is not in session again until July 12, and it is unclear how it will view the additions the House has made.
Pentagon chief Robert Gates said recently the money for 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan should be approved by July 4 to avoid the Pentagon having to juggle accounts and possibly lay off civilians while continuing war operations.
Still it seemed a wonder the new money for the unpopular war got through the House at all, after long arguments among Democratic lawmakers over whether and how to do it. They set up a complicated series of votes in which the non-military spending passed 239-182, while the part containing the war funding passed 215-210.
"I do not believe this war is anything but a fool's errand. If I had my way, I would never bring this to the floor," declared House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey, who is in charge of spending legislation in the chamber.
The last two weeks have thrown an especially harsh light on the war effort, with new reports of corruption in President Hamid Karzai's government, and a change in the commander of U.S. forces and multinational forces in Afghanistan.
The House-approved bill includes nearly $4 billion in economic aid to Afghanistan and its neighbor, Pakistan.
The war funds are in addition to $130 billion Congress has already approved for Afghanistan and Iraq this year.
DAY OF DRAMA
Key members of the Democratic majority decided to let the legislation go to the House floor Thursday evening after adding the money for domestic U.S. programs they favored.
There was $10 billion to help avert teacher layoffs, $700 million for security on the border with Mexico and $142 million to help the oil-sullied Gulf Coast. Cuts were proposed to other programs to offset the spending.
"If American money is going to be building a nation, I'd like it to be mine," said Representative Louise Slaughter, chairwoman of the powerful Rules Committee, before the vote.
She complained that the United States has already spent too much on the Afghan war -- some $345 billion, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office -- and needed to pay attention to its own economic problems and mounting debt.
But while the extra cash helped bring in Democratic votes, it turned off Republicans who generally supported Obama's surge but also expressed concern about rising U.S. debt.
"I think this is disgraceful," said House Republican Leader John Boehner. He said Republicans had promised to vote for war funds so long as the bill was "clean," without any add-ons.
"We promised the president we would help pass this bill," Boehner said. "There was never any working together to try to make sure that our troops have what they needed in a timely fashion."
The White House joined in the drama by threatening to veto the final version of the bill if lawmakers do not put back $800 million in education program cuts in the non-military part.
The White House also said any legislation that would undermine Obama's ability to conduct military operations in Afghanistan would draw a veto.
The House rejected amendments that would strike military funding from the bill or limit funds to a pullout. Longtime war opponents complained that lawmakers were still afraid to pull the plug on the war.
"Why are we continuing to send our troops into a Mission Impossible?" asked Rep. Dennis Kucinich, a liberal Democrat.
(Editing by Doina Chiacu)
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