The United States Senate (right) has just approved a $165 billion funding bill (by a vote of 75-22) to finance the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq well into 2009. The bill was sponsored by Senator Jim Webb, a West Virginia Democrat and Vietnam War veteran. What made this funding package different from past huge cash infusions into the wars overseas was the inclusion of billions of dollars for a number of domestic programs, including education and benefits for veterans. For example, it provides $52 billion over 10 years to help veterans pay for university tuition. Many observers are likening the bill to the G.I. Bill, the ambitious omnibus bill passed late in World War II that similarly furnished billions of dollars for domestic programs to help veterans and their families.
Not surprisingly, antiwar activists immediately condemned the vote. Michael McPhearson, co-chair of the antiwar group United for Peace and Justice, noted that the Senate has "ensured the needless deaths of hundreds of soldiers and thousands of innocent Iraqis by voting to expand the war and occupation for another full year."
The funding bill in the Senate created strange bedfellows. Democrats and moderate Republicans united in their support for the bill. The 22 who voted against it consisted largely (but note entirely) of Republicans who support President George W. Bush's opposition to any sort of funding for humane veterans' programs. The bill has also caused a great deal of controversy on the campaign trail because Senator John McCain opposed it -- largely for the same reason why Bush is now threatening to veto it: Because of its ambitious domestic spending side. True, McCain -- as part of his damage control -- is calling for more modest sums to be spent on education for veterans (based on a sliding scale tied to their individual records of military service). But his plan is far less ambitious.
Historically, right-wing Republicans have been miserly when it comes to allocating any sort of funds to help ordinary American people. They'll flush billions -- trillions -- down the toilet of the Iraq War. They'll support mammoth foreign aid packages that include colossal sums of humanitarian and military spending. But when it comes to helping working-class and middle-class men and women and their families, these GOP zealots cling to a warped "pull yourself up by the bootstrap" mentality that is strangely absent in the rest of their designs to create a gargantuan bureaucracy in Washington, D.C. Is there anybody out there who still believes that right-wing Republicans are advocates of small government? If you really want limited government, Libertarian presidential hopeful Bob Barr -- not John McCain -- is your candidate.
Although Senator McCain used to be a maverick on a host of issues, he has morphed into one of those "pull yourself up by the bootstrap" Republicans who advocates socialism for the rich and free enterprise for all the rest of us.
Meanwhile, those who want an end to the bloodbath in Iraq should keep two things in mind: 1) Congress is not going to suddenly pull the plug on support for the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan and beat a hasty retreat. Most members of Congress would regard such a move as political suicide. The $165 billion funding bill is a time-buying measure to keep the operations going until there is a new president in the White House. 2) The domestic spending contained in the funding bill represents a very real victory for veterans and their families, who -- up until now -- have been marginalized and ignored in the worst way imaginable. Michael McPhearson is quite correct to suggest that this bill -- supported by Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton -- will extend this horrific war for many more months. And this is a war that has caused profound destruction, dislocation and carnage. But if the Democrats play their cards carefully, they can tie McCain's opposition to humanitarian domestic spending to Bush's failed, disastrous policies over the past seven-plus years. Sadly, Democrats have often blundered such coups, and they may just blow this one, too.
Bottom line: You can be certain Congress would have voted to continue financing the Iraq War one way or the other. The G.I. Bill-like elements of this recent funding bill represent a brilliant maneuver by Democrats to move in a more liberal direction on the home front. If Bush vetoes the bill, he'll simply expose his true colors. And McCain's opposition to it has already undermined him. What's next? Somehow, Democrats must summon the courage to reorient foreign policy in a similarly humane direction by ending the war and creating a new Marshall Plan to help rebuild Iraq.