The Cable

War funding and the House that Murtha built

When the Senate Appropriations Committee approved its version of the $58.8 billion supplemental war-funding bill last week, it included $174,000 to be paid to the wife of deceased House defense spending cardinal John Murtha.

So is Murtha appropriating funds from beyond the grave? Nope. The money, equal to one year's salary, is a standard death benefit, aides from both parties confirmed. Murtha's next of kin are entitled to get the money in the next funding bill following his unfortunate and untimely passing. It's just a coincidence that the money will be in an "emergency" war funding bill.

Before his death in February, Murtha had been the man in charge of war-funding bills ever since the Democrats retook the House in 2006. As chairman of the defense appropriations subcommittee, he was famous for larding up supplemental legislation with billions each year in pet projects for the military services, defense contractors, and his hometown of Johnston, PA. The House leadership, also seeking to take advantage of the off-budget spending opportunity, would then come in and add billions more in items that had nothing to do with the military or national security at all. Your humble Cable guy, in a previous life, documented these add-ons in excruciating detail, and this year will be no different.

We can confirm reports today that the House is planning to bring up the war-funding bill as early as next week, hoping to somehow make the administration's Memorial Day deadline. Democratic lawmakers are planning to add a $23 billion fund for states to stave off teacher layoffs (and sway wayward left-leaning members of the caucus), which Republicans oppose.

But without GOP votes and knowing that as many as 100 or so anti-war Democrats will always vote against war spending, how will the House leadership get it passed? Our Hill sources are saying that the leadership is weighing splitting the bill into two parts, one with the war funding and another with the other stuff. The war funding would pass, with the entire Republicans caucus and some Democrats voting for it. The add-ons would pass with almost all Democrats voting yes and no GOP support whatsoever.

That's the current thinking, but things could change between now and Memorial Day, our sources warn. But if all goes ahead as planned, the two passed sections would then be joined through some procedural gymnastics and sent to the Senate as one bill. It's been done before, and always evokes cries of process corruption from Republicans. But it tends to work, and billions will go out in the "war-funding emergency" bill that have nothing to do with Iraq or Afghanistan.

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The Cable

After U.N. deal, a bipartisan push for U.S. sanctions bill

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stunned the world Tuesday morning when she testified that the United States had reached an agreement with other permanent members of the U.N. Security Council on a draft resolution leveling new sanctions against Iran. But there's one body that the administration still does not have an Iran sanctions agreement with: the U.S. Congress.

Congressional leaders on both sides of the aisle and in both chambers pledged to swiftly reconcile the two versions of the Iran sanctions legislation, one sponsored by Senate Banking Committee chairman Chris Dodd, D-CT, and another led by House Foreign Affairs Committee head Howard Berman, D-CA.

"We hope it will move out of conference this week and be on the floor next week," House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-MD, said Tuesday.

"International sanctions make a lot more sense than unilateral ... But we're not going to retreat from the unilateral sanctions effort," said Dodd.

Inside the conference process, there's a lot going on. Conferees and non-conferees alike have been holding meetings on the legislation both at the staff and member level. Dodd and Berman have been engaged with the administration to work on the fixes the Obama team wants to see in the bill.

The drive to complete the bill quickly, ahead of the U.N. Security Council process, is bipartisan and bicameral. Republicans don't believe the U.N. language will be tough enough and are resisting administration efforts to have Congress wait for the U.N. track to play out. Democrats don't want to be pegged as weak on national security, and are cautiously trying to accommodate the administration's request for a delay.

But leading Republicans are growing impatient.

"I hope that the Democrats and the administration would move forward with that as quickly as possible. They clearly have been stalling for a long period of time," Senate Armed Services committee ranking member John McCain, R-AZ, told The Cable.

And there could be real consequences for Democrats if they don't complete the conference by May 28, when the Memorial Day recess begins. Aides said that House Republicans agreed to hold off from leveling public admonishments of the conference process, known as "motions to instruct conferees," if and only if the conference finished its work before the recess.

What that means is that after the recess, the House GOP can and probably will force votes as often as every day on the issue, creating news stories about the delay in the legislation and forcing Democratic lawmakers to take uncomfortable votes that could highlight differences they have with the White House.

Despite Hoyer's confidence, other senior Democrats are skeptical the bill can be passed in time.

"I would hope there could be at least a deal struck by the 28th, even if it doesn't leave the Congress by then," Senate Armed Services Committee chairman Carl Levin, D-MI, said in an interview.

House Democrats were more forceful.

"As the administration continues its efforts to rally the international community for strong multilateral sanctions, Congress should move forward with bilateral sanctions," said Nita Lowey, D-NY, the chairwoman of the State and Foreign Operations appropriations subcommittee.

Congressional sources inside the process say that with Clinton's announcement and the new Iran-Turkey-Brazil fuel swap deal, there's a lot of confusion about what the state of play actually is and what should be done about it.

"There are a lot of moving pieces right now," said one congressional aide close to the process, explaining that there is debate between the House and the Senate, between Democrats and Republicans, and between Congress and the administration, just for starters.

The Clinton announcement and the fuel-swap deal send conflicting signals, the aide said. The former seems to signal that the U.N. process is being sped up; the latter seems to indicate the U.N. process is going to get bogged down.

One theory around the Capitol is that Congress desperately wants to get the bill done and so is likely to cave on substantive issues, such as the White House's drive to get an exemption written in for "cooperating" countries.

An opposing theory is that the international sanctions are not going to be strong enough, so Congress will become more entrenched in holding to its own ideas of what sanctions should look like.

State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley made it clear Tuesday that the administration doesn't expect the U.N. to finish up by Memorial Day.

"There's no particular timetable here," he said. "The president has indicated he'd like to see this done by the end of spring, and that remains the timeline that we are following."

For Congress, that might be a bridge too far. "Patience is wearing thin, and time is running out," the aide said.