Senate votes to make loan, not grant, to Iraq

Administration had fought conditions on $10 billion

October 17, 2003|By Julie Hirschfeld Davis | Julie Hirschfeld Davis,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Bucking President Bush and dealing a blow to his Iraq plan, the Senate voted narrowly last night to hold back half of the $20.3 billion he requested for reconstruction in Iraq and turn it into a loan.

The action came as the House headed today toward passage of the broader $87 billion emergency spending bill for Iraq and Afghanistan, after fighting off attempts by members in both parties to alter the president's proposal.

The Senate is expected to pass its version today, including the loan provision.

Eight Senate Republicans joined with all but four Democrats to defy Bush and back the loan proposal, which the administration has fiercely opposed, in a sign that Congress has grown anxious about the U.S. mission in Iraq and is struggling to justify its costs in the face of mounting opposition among the American public.

The final vote was 51-47.

Both houses were expected to pass the overall spending measure with bipartisan support, handing Bush a major victory.

But backing for it is far thinner than the nearly unanimous support Congress registered in the spring for the first $79 billion Iraq spending measure.

That shift reflects a growing uneasiness in both parties about Bush's policies in Iraq and a lingering sense of uncertainty about what the future holds there - fueled by public skepticism about Bush's handling of the postwar period.

Lawmakers backing the measure, whose price tag shocked many in the public and in Congress, are doing so despite their near-certainty that they will be asked to provide more money - increasing a budget deficit that is already at a record high - before U.S. troops come home.

The $66 billion included in the measure for military activities has received little debate. But the $20 billion for reconstruction - a package whose cost and scope have been compared to the Marshall plan to help Europe recover from World War II - has sparked a lively dispute about what responsibilities the United States has for rebuilding Iraq and whether American taxpayers alone should have to shoulder that burden for a nation that sits atop huge oil reserves worth billions.

"This is a tough pill for the American taxpayer to swallow, but it's a necessary pill in order to assure our success in Iraq," said Rep. Zach Wamp, a Tennessee Republican who said he would support the measure after Bush convinced him last week in a one-on-one meeting to drop a loan proposal similar to the one that passed the Senate.

Republican leaders presented the broader $87 billion measure in the stark light in which Bush has painted it: as a referendum on the war on terrorism, which the administration has closely linked to its mission in Iraq.

"With this vote, every member of the House will tell the world how seriously they take the war on terror," said Majority Leader Tom DeLay, a Texas Republican. "That old debating of, `I support the troops, but ... ' just isn't going to cut it this time. If you support the war and you support the troops, you must vote for this bill."

Still, many House and Senate Democrats served notice that they would oppose the package, despite their stated support for U.S. troops overseas. They said their votes were a rejection of Bush's botched plans in Iraq.

"This has been a process characterized by the administration's arrogance in the conduct of foreign affairs," said Rep. Albert R. Wynn, a Prince George's County Democrat. "This is a statement that we do not support this policy, we don't buy it, and the American public doesn't buy it."

The House defeated attempts to turn the reconstruction grant into a loan. But proponents of that approach had more luck in the Senate, where - despite determined lobbying by the White House - members voted to approve the bipartisan amendment to covert $10 billion into a loan. Eight Republicans joined 42 Democrats, including Maryland Sens. Barbara A. Mikulski and Paul S. Sarbanes, and one independent in supporting the measure. Four Democrats and 43 Republicans opposed it.

The amendment, offered by centrist Democrats Evan Bayh of Indiana and Ben Nelson of Nebraska, would immediately provide $10.3 billion in security and rebuilding funds to Iraq.

The rest of the money would be lent and would be forgiven only if Iraq's debtor nations - chiefly France, Russia and Saudi Arabia - agreed to cancel at least 90 percent of the more than $200 billion that Saddam Hussein's regime owes them.

Bush invested substantial time and effort in lobbying to keep the spending measure as he proposed it. In meetings at the White House and on Capitol Hill, Bush and his top officials have argued that lending Iraq money is not only unworkable but dangerous and that it would undermine the push they are making to secure contributions from other nations for the rebuilding effort.

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