The mouth that roared (and lied)


040707obey.jpgIn putting together the House’s war spending bill, Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey (left) gave false information to fellow Democrats, yelled at anti-war protesters and slammed The Washington Post.

“I didn’t come here to win any charm-school award,” the cantankerous Wisconsin Democrat said in an interview.

His social skills aside, analysts and lawmakers credit Obey for pushing the $124 billion spending bill through the House last month on a 218-212 vote. House and Senate negotiators will craft a final bill, which faces a near-certain White House veto.

“David Obey is a very, very bright guy with a very, very short fuse,” said Rutgers University political science professor Ross Baker. “Given the factionalism within the Democratic caucus in the House, I think he handled it very skillfully. He has a reputation for not suffering fools lightly, and he had to suffer a number of fools.”

Obey, 68, made it clear that the legislation bearing his name was not his ideal bill.

“I told the Democratic caucus what I’m bringing to the floor isn’t my choice, it isn’t my first preference,” Obey said over lunch at the National Democratic Club on Capitol Hill. “If I had my way, we’d be out yesterday.

“I used to think when I become chairman, boy, I would be able do all kinds of wonderful things that I wanted to do. And after I became chairman, I learned that while you can have your own preferences, and your own agenda, that you spend 90 percent of your time simply trying to find the balance point in the House. So you’re constantly balancing other peoples’ preferences and agendas.”

Although Obey’s legislation calls for U.S. troops to leave Iraq before September 2008, it also funds the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, angering anti-war activists who want an immediate cutoff of funds for Iraq.

That led to a lively exchange between Obey and a peace protester outside his office, caught on video and widely circulated on the Web.

“We’re trying to use the supplemental to end the war,” Obey told the activist, Tina Richards, after she asked whether he planned to vote against it. “But you can’t end the war if you vote against the supplemental. It’s time these idiot liberals understand that.” He later apologized.

Rep. Ike Skelton, a Missouri Democrat who chairs the House Armed Services Committee, called Obey “the ultimate legislator. He’s very, very good at doing what he does. He had a near impossible task of gluing the language together that finally passed the House.”

In crafting the bill, Obey was so angered about leaks to the media that he deliberately gave some Democratic members false information to find out who the culprits were. He said he doesn’t regret doing so.

“When people are getting in the way of finding a solution — damaging all you’re trying to do — you use all the techniques you can,” Obey said.

He also won’t offer any apologies for the $20 billion in the legislation for domestic spending, which was widely criticized by the Bush administration, newspaper editorials and budget hawks. On the day of the vote, he complained about a Washington Post editorial that skewered Democrats for including “wasteful subsidies to agriculture or pork barrel projects aimed at individual members of Congress.”

Taking to the House floor, Obey said the bill ends “the permanent long-term, dead-end baby-sitting service.”

“And if the Washington Post is offended about the way we do it, that’s just too bad,” he added angrily. “But we’re in the arena, they’re not, and this is the best we can do given the tools we have, and I make absolutely no apology for it.”

The bill included millions of dollars for things like peanut storage and payments to spinach farmers, as well as the renewal of a milk subsidy program that has benefited Wisconsin more than any other state.

“There are lots of people in this town who always look down their nose at something labeled agriculture,” Obey griped in the interview. “Funny, funny, ha-ha.” Referring to the milk program, he said, “Pardon me if I insist that farmers that I represent get equity.”

He also said that many items in the bill were leftovers from the last session that Republicans didn’t get finished when they controlled Congress.

Brian J. Kennedy, a spokesman for House Republican leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, responded, “It sounds like the guy who holds both the checkbook and the pen is trying to pass the buck on an indefensible bill.”

Obey, who plays harmonica in a band called The Capitol Offenses, is one of the longest-serving members in the House. He won a special election in 1969 to replace Republican Melvin Laird, who had resigned to become secretary of defense for President Nixon. Laird and Obey have remained good friends over the years.

“Any damn fool can put something up that defines how he feels,” Obey said. “But you’ve got to … find a combination that will work and also make sense on the ground, because there are lots of things that may make sense politically but make no damn sense in terms of what’s happening in Iraq.”

Copyright © 2007 The Associated Press