WASHINGTON - The Senate approved $165 billion yesterday to fund the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan well into the next presidency. But in a break with President Bush and Senator John McCain, the Senate also approved billions of dollars in domestic spending that includes a generous expansion of veterans' education benefits.
The war funding measure, which passed 70 to 26, will be twinned with the domestic spending package and sent to the House for final approval after the Memorial Day recess.
Senators stripped the package of all language that mandated troop withdrawals and that sought to govern the conduct of the Iraq war, which had been in a previous version approved by the House.
But the separate domestic spending package served notice to the White House that in an election year, lawmakers from both parties will demand coupling Iraq war funds with priorities at home. The bill would cost more than $250 billion over 10 years, including $51 billion for the veterans' education benefits alone.
"I have spent many days in the United States Senate, and I don't know of any days I will cherish more than this one," said Senator John Warner, Republican of Virginia, one of the original cosponsors of the new GI Bill.
The 75-to-22 vote on the domestic measure surprised even its advocates and showed clearly the impact of the looming November election on Republican unity. Senate Republicans who face reelection abandoned Bush first, followed by other Republicans. Twenty-five Senate Republicans, more than half the total, joined 48 Democrats and two independents to ensure the bill's passage.
The White House opposed the expanded GI Bill, concerned that the price tag was too high and that the generous benefits could entice service members to leave the overburdened military rather than reenlist.
Republicans and Democrats urged Bush to back off from his veto threat.
But the White House showed no sign of that.
"There's a long way to go in this process, and fortunately it takes two houses of Congress to send a bill to the president," said White House spokeswoman Dana Perino.
"Our position hasn't changed. This is the wrong way to consider domestic spending, and Congress should not go down this path."
The Senate measure extends unemployment benefits for 13 weeks, funds levee construction around New Orleans, and guarantees that veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will receive education benefits equal to tuition at the most expensive state universities.
It provides additional funds for the Food and Drug Administration, the 2010 census, federal prisons, local law enforcement agencies, heating assistance for the poor, and many other domestic priorities.
It also blocks the administration from implementing regulations that would limit access to the State Children's Health Insurance Program.