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Battling Bush on the Cost of War


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Battling Bush on the Cost of War

Thursday, Oct. 25, 2007 By JAY NEWTON-SMALL/WASHINGTON

"I ask everyone who comes into this office seeking money two questions," Obey, Congress's top money man, said from behind his desk across the room. Each wrinkled sign bears one of those questions, and Obey asks them so often that he can recite them by heart. "The first is: If what you want costs money, are you willing to go home and tell your friends that we need to cut back on the size of the President's tax cuts so there is room for it in the budget?" The second, and related question, goes as follows: "Is there anything you want me to do for somebody else that is more important than whatever it is you want me to do for you?"

Both questions are typical of the Wisconsin Democrat, who prides himself on his "sharp-penciled" budgets. It also reflects his frustration with what he considers President George W. Bush's "rampant hypocrisy" when it comes to spending and the war in Iraq, the two intertwined issues that Obey is currently battling over with the White House.

In the coming weeks Bush and Obey will go nine rounds — literally. Bush has threatened to veto nine of the 12 spending bills for fiscal 2008 — which are expected to reach his desk in November — because Democrats added more than $20 billion for education, health care and science programs that they say are vital. The Constitution may have granted Congress the power of the purse but Democrats don't have the votes to override Bush's veto. Ahead of this fight, Obey chose last month to announce his intention to shelve the President's annual supplemental request for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — $200 billion for 2008 — until Bush consents to a timeline for withdrawing U.S. combat troops from Iraq. Bush may have the veto, but he can't force Obey to move that bill out of committee.

"I was trying to demonstrate that it was rampant hypocrisy for Bush to say: 'Ooh that $20 billion in education, health care and sciences is going to unbalance the budget,'" Obey said in a ghoulish tone, shaking his hands for effect. "'But, ooh it's a national necessity to borrow $200 billion for this misbegotten war in Iraq.' Ten times as much money."

Obey's bold move has drawn an immediate indignant reaction from the right, which is fuming that soldiers in the field could be left in the lurch when the current funding runs out. Obey welcomed the furor. "To me that means the message got out just a little bit," Obey said. "The main point is that this war has been the worst foreign policy disaster going back to the war of 1812 and I say the war of 1812 because that's the last war where we actually lost territory. We have ruined our influence in the Middle East. We have damn near broken the army."

After more than 30 years on the Appropriations Committee and now in his second stint at its helm, Obey, 69, has been asked by a lot of people for money: fellow members requesting earmarks for projects in their districts, the Administration looking to fund everything from the war in Iraq to the White House operating budget and constituents from his home district in Wisconsin. In that time, he's had no problem speaking his mind and saying no to those requests he deemed undeserving.

But his withholding the war funding to force change in Iraq policy takes his penchant for confrontation to another level. It's a strategy that this week has been picked up by the Democratic leadership in press conferences and media releases after Bush formally submitted his supplemental request. And the House Budget Committee Wednesday held a hearing on new estimates that the cost of the war in Iraq will reach $2.4 trillion by 2017, according to the Congressional Budget Office. "I think Obey rightfully makes the point that the priorities of this Administration are out of whack,"said House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer. Given Bush's office, "it's not a fair fight, but in terms of ability and knowledge — of process and priorities — Obey's clearly certainly a match for not only the President, but just about anybody." ,,.....

"When I go over and talk to him about an issue in my district, it's not like a Republican talking to a Democrat, it's like a fellow legislator talking to a fellow legislator,"said Congressman Mike Simpson, an Idaho Republican who serves on the committee. "And he listens and tries to help you out and there's probably nobody that understands the federal budget better than he does."............

Obey insists Democrats haven't abandoned that strategy — one way or another a change will be forced by next spring, he says, when the money starts dwindling for the troops. Republican Senators, he argues, "won't buy into exactly what we're pushing but they will insist that the President will adjust his policy."


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