Senate approves $1 billion to aid Colombia drug fight

Funds to help equip, train security forces


WASHINGTON - The Senate last night endorsed an aid package of nearly $1 billion to help Colombia equip and train security forces to combat drug traffickers in a country where the narcotics trade and guerrilla insurgency support each other.

While the Senate delayed until today final passage of the legislation containing the aid, that outcome was not in doubt, and senators completed work on the Colombia portions of the bill.

The Senate has now set aside a total of almost $1.3 billion for assistance to Colombia over the next two years, counting $300 million in an earlier military bill. In late March, the House approved $1.7 billion over two years in emergency spending for the nation, one of Washington's most important Latin American allies.

Anticipating last night's votes, House and Senate Republican leaders met yesterday morning to discuss how to reconcile the two competing versions, which have several crucial differences, so that an aid package could be approved before the July 4 recess.

In recent weeks, both President Clinton and President Andres Pastrana of Colombia have appealed to congressional leaders to rush passage of an anti-drug plan to help Colombia and other Andean nations. The plan is backed by top Republican leaders like House Speaker Dennis Hastert and Sen. Paul Coverdell of Georgia.

"Colombia is the heart of the drug war and we'd better get on with it," Coverdell said. "If we lose in Colombia, then we lose everywhere."

But critics argued in debate yesterday that the aid package would ensnare the United States in an open-ended conflict that has claimed tens of thousands of lives over the past 40 years.

"The capacity of this body for self-delusion appears to this senator to be unlimited," said Sen. Slade Gorton, a Republican from Washington. "There has been no consideration of the consequences, cost and length of involvement. This bill says, let's get into war now and justify it later."

The decisive votes last night came on two amendments to reduce or shift some of the $934 million earmarked this year and next for Colombia in a foreign aid bill.

By 89-11, senators defeated an amendment by Sen. Paul Wellstone, a Democrat from Minnesota, to transfer $225 million in aid from the Colombia military to drug treatment programs in the United States. The Senate then defeated an amendment by Gorton to cut the aid package to $200 million, from $934 million.

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