WASHINGTON — Capitol Hill Democrats are closing in on agreement on a war funding bill that's now likely to cost taxpayers well over $100 billion with the late addition of more flu-fighting funds and money to subsidize new car purchases.
And, under a compromise revealed by House and Senate aides Wednesday, detainees held at the Guantanamo Bay prison could be transferred to the U.S. to face trial but not to serve their sentences in this country if convicted.
An official House-Senate negotiating session was scheduled for Thursday, with votes in the House and Senate expected next week.
The ever-growing measure is now expected to contain $7.7 billion in flu-fighting funds instead of President Barack Obama's original $1.5 billion request. Negotiators are also eyeing $1 billion for a new "cash for clunkers" program that aims to boost new auto sales by allowing consumers to turn in their gas-guzzling cars and trucks for vouchers toward the purchase of more fuel-efficient vehicles.
The core of the measure remains funding for military and diplomatic operations in Iraq and Afghanistan that would bring the total approved by Congress for the two wars above $900 billion. The must-pass measure, however, has been caught in Capitol Hill's crosscurrents.
It appears that House liberals opposed to a Senate provision to block the release of new detainee abuse photos are now likely to prevail. That earned a blistering retort from Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who co-authored the language in question and agrees with Obama that release of the photos would whip up anti-American sentiment and threaten U.S. service members.
"I think it's one of the most irresponsible things I've heard of," Graham told reporters. "They don't have our troops' back."
House liberals prevailed in the fight over detainee photos because their votes are needed to pass the measure since House Republican support has evaporated over the decision to add to the bill Obama's request for a new $108 billion U.S. line of credit to the International Monetary Fund to help poor countries deal with the world recession.
Some 51 House Democrats, most of them opposed to the war in Iraq and, increasingly, the effort in Afghanistan as well, opposed the measure in a vote last month. Many of them are leadership loyalists who can be counted on to switch.
The issue of Guantanamo was particularly difficult. The White House pressed to weaken Senate language that would have blocked the administration from bringing detainees to the United States, even to stand trial.
The compromise strikes a balance between House and Senate provisions to permit accused terrorists — such as Ahmed Ghailani, who appeared on Tuesday in a federal court in New York as the first Guantanamo detainee to come to trial in the U.S. — to be transferred to the U.S. for their trials but not permanent detention.
Funding to specifically help accomplish Obama's goal of closing Guantanamo was denied, however.
The war funding bill started in April as an $83.4 billion request from Obama and has grown steadily from there. He soon added a $1.5 billion flu-fighting request, which came as fears of the H1N1 swine flu outbreak gripped the nation.
The House promptly added almost $12 billion in additional spending for foreign aid, military procurement and additional anti-flu money.
Obama's request for the IMF funding came too late for inclusion in the original House bill but was added to the Senate version, and promptly opened a fissure with House Republicans.
The actual cost to taxpayers for the IMF funding is estimated at $5 billion, though the government would have to borrow the full $108 billion.
Obama followed last week with a request for $2 billion in additional flu-fighting funds — on top of the $1.5 billion initial request — and the authority to shift about $3.8 billion in cash from the economic stimulus bill to the effort in case the swine flu bug returns with a vengeance this flu season. A tentative agreement would leave the stimulus measure untouched and simply appropriate the full request, which would boost detection efforts and would develop, stockpile and administer vaccines.
The underlying measure funds Obama's plan to send more than 20,000 additional troops to Afghanistan, and with the increase in U.S. operations there, the Afghanistan war is now expected to cost more than Iraq.
It also contains money for new weapons and military equipment such as eight C-17 cargo planes, mine-resistant vehicles, Bradley Fighting Vehicles and Stryker armored vehicles. It contains an about $2.2 billion increase to Obama's request for foreign aid, much of which appears to be designed to get around spending limits for 2010.
Separately, a House panel Wednesday approved Obama's request for remarkable increases in grants to local governments for clean water projects as it unveiled a $32.3 billion spending bill for the Interior Department and environmental programs.
Democrats justified a 9 percent increase for the Interior Department and a whopping 38 percent boost for the Environmental Protection Agency by saying former President George W. Bush shortchanged them for years.
A 75 percent increase for grants to cities and counties for clean and safe drinking water projects would both ease a backlog of projects and create much-needed infrastructure jobs, Democrats said.