Congress OKs $87 billion for postwar aid

Bush allies pledge to stop Senate plan to make part of funds loan, not grant

Legislators grow skeptical

Lawmakers to meet to resolve differences in House, Senate drafts

October 18, 2003|By Julie Hirschfeld Davis | Julie Hirschfeld Davis,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - A skeptical Congress fell in line behind President Bush yesterday to pass differing versions of his $87 billion spending plan for Iraq and Afghanistan, despite outspoken unease about spending so much money on his postwar effort.

The House passed its version 303-125. The Senate followed suit on its plan, 87-12.

Republican leaders vowed to eliminate an amendment in the Senate version that would convert half the $20.3 billion designated for rebuilding Iraq into a loan. The dispute over the loan issue exposed sharp divisions in Congress' support for Bush's postwar plans.

The bipartisan amendment would require Iraq to repay half the U.S. money that's geared for reconstruction. The idea has broad appeal among Republicans and Democrats whose constituents have expressed rising opposition to spending billions of dollars more to stabilize and rebuild Iraq.

In the end, the president managed to secure enough support in Congress for almost all of the $87 billion he had sought. Many lawmakers were reluctant to withhold aid for postwar Iraq, despite their misgivings about the president's handling of the situation there.

"Those who vote against this bill will be voting against supporting our men and women in the field," said Sen. Ted Stevens, an Alaska Republican. "They're still in harm's way."

At the same time, Bush and his foreign policy aides had invested a rare degree of personal time and effort lobbying against the loan plan, whose adoption by the Republican-led Senate dealt the administration an embarrassing setback. Their allies pledged to use their muscle to kill it during House-Senate negotiations on the final bill.

"I'm going to work hard to see that it's dropped," said Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, a Tennessee Republican.

That sets the stage for a closely watched conference next week to resolve differences between the version passed by the House, which left the reconstruction money as a grant, and the Senate's, for which eight Republicans joined most Democrats to back the loan plan.

The White House and Republican leaders hope to complete the bill, which also includes $66 billion for military activities, and enact it in time for an international donors' conference in Madrid late next week. U.S. officials hope to persuade other nations at the session to contribute to Iraq's reconstruction.

Even as the $87 billion bill gathered bipartisan support, it provoked a dose of soul-searching among those in both parties who are anxious about Iraq's future and the disarray and continuing U.S. death toll there.

The measure received many more "no" votes, particularly in the House, than did the $79 billion infusion that lawmakers approved for Iraq and Afghanistan last spring.

Though Bush will likely get most of what he wants in the final measure, Republicans and Democrats agreed to attach conditions to the money. They include regular reports on the U.S. mission's progress in Iraq and more accountability in the awarding of contracts for rebuilding the nation.

"You have seen Congress exercising a more independent role here than it has in the past," said Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, a Baltimore Democrat who voted for the president's measure. "There are many of us who do not believe the president has taken the right course here, and that needs to change."

The House and Senate both cut Bush's request for Iraq reconstruction aid slightly, eliminating what lawmakers in both parties called wasteful spending that they had trouble justifying to constituents who are enduring economic hardship at home.

Such items included a proposed $153 million that Bush asked for to improve Iraq's waste management programs and buy garbage trucks; $50 million for traffic police; and $9 million for an Iraqi postal system. Those cuts brought the reconstruction spending down to $18.6 billion in the House and $18.5 billion in the Senate.

The final House bill totals roughly $87 billion; the Senate's totals just over $85 billion.

Senators who backed the loan provision may have little leverage to keep their proposal in the final measure, which is almost certain to pass even if that proposal is dropped. Many lawmakers are especially reluctant to oppose the overall spending bill because of the money included for the U.S. military.

Its proponents warned that scrapping the loan plan could carry its own political costs.

"The only way we're going to lose this war is if the American people turn against us," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican. "This is the beginning of a trend that will get worse."

Other supporters of the loan proposal argued that dismissing it would be tantamount to rejecting the concerns of many Americans.

"It's hard to tell your constituents they're wrong when they're right," said Rep. Mike Pence, an Indiana Republican who was blocked by his party's leaders from holding a vote on his loan proposal, similar to the one that passed the Senate. "They know [Iraq] is an oil-rich nation."

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