Battling Bush on the Cost of War

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Win McNamee / Getty

House Appropriations Chairman David Obey (D-WI) speaks during a news conference.

David Obey has never been mistaken for having a soft touch, and his corner U.S. Capitol office is a testament to that. There, across from the dozen or so sharpened pencils piled on his desk, are two dog-eared signs taped to the gilt mirror over the marble fireplace, each bearing multiple pencil and highlighter stabs and dashes.

"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."

As the title of his recently published autobiography, Raising Hell for Justice: The Washington Battles of a Heartland Progressive, implies, Obey is one of the most liberal members of Congress. Elected at the tender age of 30, it's no surprise that he spends only 100 pages talking about his life before Congress and 300 pages on his time in office. Obey won his seat on April Fool's Day, 1969, with just 51.5% of the vote, in a special election to replace Republican Melvin Laird, who resigned to become Nixon's Secretary of Defense. He has since built a solid majority, winning reelection in 2006 with 62% of the vote.

Despite his wealth of knowledge about managing dollars and cents, Obey happens to be one of the poorer members of the House. With net assets estimated between $35,007 and $175,000, he is ranked number 358 out of 435, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. It is because of Obey's humble roots that he has endorsed John Edwards for President in 2008. Edwards' message about the Two Americas — one poor and one rich — so appealed to Obey that he called up the former North Carolina Senator and offered to endorse him just days after the 2004 election.

Occasionally, Obey's independent streak is even too much for his own party. One example of that is a war surtax that Obey proposed last month to help offset the cost of the ongoing presence in Iraq. He offered it fully aware that it had absolutely no chance of passing, but simply to highlight his frustration that only military families are bearing the brunt of the war's burden. Obey wryly noted that he approached Pelosi with the surtax and the supplemental at the same time. "I told her: 'Nancy, I've got two things here, one you'll like and the other you won't.' And she heard me out and said, David you're right. I don't like that.'" "I didn't expect any support," Obey continued. "Around here sometimes, believe it or not, it's permissible to say things just because you believe it. Just for the hell of it."

Obey is also known on Capitol Hill for his mercurial temper. He once famously got into a shoving match with former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay on the floor of the House and this spring was dubbed "Mount Obey" by Politico, a daily Hill newspaper and political website, because of an eruption at anti-war Democrat Dennis Kucinich for asking what Obey deemed a dumb question.

"He's flamboyant, yells and screams when things don't suit him, but then so do I,"said Bob Livingston, a former Republican Speaker of the House who chaired the committee from 1995-1998. When the G.O.P. took control of Congress in 1994, Obey — as outgoing chairman — left Livingston a big bottle of Scotch in the desk drawer and a note that read "Best Wishes on an Outstanding Chairmanship." The gesture was indicative of how bipartisan the committee has been and remains to this day.

"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."

His colleagues, knowing his "unique mercury reading," have developed a system on how best to approach Obey, according to Rahm Emanuel, the No. 4 House Democrat. "If there are three or more pencils in his suit pocket, my recommendation is to stay away,"Emanuel said. "And if those pencils are pointing up, my recommendation is definitely stay away — approach at your own risk!"

It was Obey's temper that got him into trouble last year when he was approached in the hallway by a member of an antiwar group called Code Pink. Calling them "idiot Democrats" who couldn't grasp why it was impossible to cut funding to the troops at that time, Obey became a YouTube star for that, and he later apologized.

"I wouldn't have had a prayer in those circumstances of taking that action last year. I mean, pardon me for taking into consideration the situation at that time," Obey said, a pencil flipping through his fingers. "I mean, that's what people do unless they're lemmings. I have no apology for trying to be pragmatic. What we were trying to do at the time is to build enough pressure on Republican Senators so that enough Republicans would switch in order to make possible some change."

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."