WASHINGTON — Paying for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars should be one of the easiest tasks facing the White House and Congress this spring, but partisan politics has stalled the effort, a signal that getting anything done this year won't be easy.
The House of Representatives and the Senate passed separate bills last month to fund the wars and other emergencies through Sept. 30, the end of the fiscal year. Final agreement on a single version was supposed to come swiftly.
Instead, Republicans have objected to a line of credit for the International Monetary Fund, and many Democrats are uneasy about a provision that would allow the secretary of defense to keep detainee-abuse photos secret.
There's a political struggle here, too, because the bill, which is expected to cost about $100 billion, involves the touchiest of subjects: national security. Though the economy remains atop voter concerns at the moment, members of Congress worry that the terrorist threat and the wars could roar back as the number one issue at any time.
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For many congressional Republicans and centrist Democrats, that requires standing tough on behalf of national security. For many other Democrats, however, it means raising serious questions about the war in Afghanistan. Both camps are driven in part by a need to position themselves for re-election next year.
"While 2010 is still a long way away, a vote on national security can come back to haunt any one of these people in a 30-second ad," said Jeremy Mayer, an associate professor of public policy at George Mason University in Virginia.
As a result, "The bill reflects kind of a reflex action by members of Congress," said Ross Baker, a professor of political science at Rutgers University in New Jersey.
The bill's slow path illustrates the thicket that Obama faces on Capitol Hill, as new issues surface and become vehicles for legislators to express long-held political views.
Last month, 168 House Republicans supported the war-funding bill, but that was before the Senate inserted the IMF provision. The commitment reflects President Barack Obama's promise at the April G-20 meeting of world leaders.
To give the IMF this line of credit "to bail out the rest of the world, I mean, this is lunacy," said House Republican leader John Boehner, R-Ohio.
Democrats have convinced some Republicans that the cost to American taxpayers, as estimated by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, shouldn't exceed $5 billion.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., is trying to paint the IMF provision as a "very important national security initiative." The IMF, she said, "can be a force for alleviating the fury of despair among people, poor people throughout the world."
The very Democrats who are sympathetic to the bill because of the IMF funding, however, are furious about the proposed restrictions on releasing detainee photos.
Fifty-one House Democrats voted against the spending measure last month, largely because of concern that the administration doesn't have an Afghanistan exit strategy. Many are even more upset now that the Senate attached to the bill a requirement authorizing the defense secretary, after consulting with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to certify that disclosing certain detainee pictures would endanger the lives of U.S. citizens.
That certification would last three years and the defense secretary could renew it "if the threat to American personnel continues," the senators said. The ban could apply to a lawsuit that the American Civil Liberties Union filed in a New York federal appeals court. The ACLU wants detainee photos released, and Obama reversed himself and now opposes their release.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said that the bill "will strengthen the Obama administration's legal standing in court."
Democrats, notably Rep. Jerrold Nadler of New York, the chairman of the House civil rights and civil liberties subcommittee, are uneasy about the provision. Twenty-seven civil rights and media groups sent a letter to the president last week urging him to release the photos.
"The last eight years have demonstrated all too painfully that excessive secrecy creates a fertile environment for grave abuses," the letter said.
Congressional leaders expect to cobble together a coalition this week that's big enough to pass the bill because, as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., put it, "It's to fund our troops. It should pass."
However, the time consumed on what should be a largely routine measure signals that the complex obstacles ahead may not be overcome smoothly or quickly.
Obama may have a somewhat easier time prevailing so long as his popularity stays high, Mayer said, but the furor over war spending is a vivid reminder: "It's always tough to get things through the sausage factory that's the American Congress."
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