WASHINGTON - In the end, the long-awaited money to replace the Interstate 35W bridge will come with war funding attached.
That's the end game of a complicated guns-and-butter deal worked out by congressional leaders to get them home for Christmas.
Nearly five months after Congress' original promise to pay for rebuilding the I-35W bridge, the House voted 253-154 Monday to approve a sprawling $516 billion spending bill that would include money for the bridge, the Northstar commuter rail project, a Central Corridor light-rail line and the 2008 GOP National Convention in St. Paul.
Conspicuously absent from the House bill -- which funds virtually the entire federal government through next September -- was any money for military operations in Iraq, although some was provided for Afghanistan.
But in an elaborate Kabuki dance worked out over the weekend, the Iraq war money is expected to appear later in the week, possibly even today. That's when Senate Republicans plan to insert some $70 billion in war funds and perhaps trim more domestic spending to avoid a White House veto.
The complicated deal, seen as a partial victory for President Bush, could win final passage this week. It would end a months-long standoff that forced Democrats to cave on much of their 2007 agenda, including a bid to tie war funding to troop withdrawal timetables.
Brian McClung, spokesman for Gov. Tim Pawlenty, called House passage of the bridge funding "a positive step forward."
Two Minnesota Republicans, Michele Bachmann and John Kline, voted against the House deal, even though it included money for the state's collapsed bridge and for the planned Northstar rail line, which is in Bachmann's district.
DFLers criticized Bachmann and Kline last month for voting against a transportation spending bill that funded the I-35W bridge, as well as billions more for earmarks that the two opposed.
House members stay mum
In the face of renewed criticism from DFLers over bridge money, Bachmann and Kline gave no indication whether they would support a final spending deal -- although their offices made clear that the bill would have to provide Iraq war funding, without limitations, and remain well within White House spending limits.
Both Bachmann and Kline have been allied with GOP budget hawks pressing for deeper trims to the 9,000 earmarks contained in the bill, known on Capitol Hill as a catch-all "omnibus."
"This half-trillion-dollar spending bill has not even seen the light of day for 24 hours yet, but from what we have learned so far, this 3,500-page omnibus is troubling and unacceptable," said House Republican Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, who is close to Kline. Boehner voted against the omnibus bill on Monday night.
The final bargain could also put many Democrats in a tough spot -- forced to vote on a bill that sacrifices some of their domestic programs to finance the war. For antiwar Minnesota Democrats in Congress, it could be an unusually hard bargain, since the I-35W bridge money probably will come wrapped in a package with war funding and no troop-withdrawal deadlines. Democrats have fought all year to tie funding to a timetable.
Spokesmen for Sen. Amy Klobuchar, as well as for Minnesota House Democrats Keith Ellison and Betty McCollum, have not said how they might vote on a bill that provides bridge funding as well as no-strings-attached money for the Iraq war. Ellison and McCollum voted for the omnibus bill Monday night.
Last chance for this year
If the deal stays on track, it would be the last chance this year to provide the $195 million MnDOT officials need to fund the new I-35W bridge.
In a written statement, Klobuchar said the bill "reaffirms the federal promise to provide the funding needed."
Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., also praised the bridge funding, though as an opponent of troop-withdrawal deadlines, he faces no similar dilemma on the war issue.
Despite differences over how to win the bridge money, and under what circumstances, the Minnesota delegation in Congress has remained unified in the final goal of winning a major federal commitment for the reconstruction.
"The administration and the entire Minnesota congressional delegation were behind this effort, which demonstrates the bipartisanship support of response to this tragedy," said Minnesota Democrat Jim Oberstar, chairman of the House Transportation Committee.
The $195 million in the current omnibus bill would bring to $373 million the total in federal emergency funds dedicated to the bridge, more than the initial $255 million that was committed in August.
The bill also includes $55 million for the Northstar commuter rail line between Minneapolis and Big Lake, as well as $850,000 to improve Hwy. 14 through south-central Minnesota.
The bill also provides $10 million for the planned Central Corridor light-rail Line between Minneapolis and St. Paul.
All the House earmarks, however, still have to survive a tense week of negotiations with the Senate.
Kevin Diaz • 202-408-2753