WASHINGTON -- From her seat on the House Appropriations Committee, Rep. Jo Ann Emerson helps decide how to dole out government dollars.
Those decisions set a course for U.S. foreign policy Thursday when Emerson, R-Mo., and her colleagues voted to spend $87 billion on Iraq and Afghanistan.
"We've got to do everything we can to stabilize the region and give the Iraqis the opportunity to self-govern," Emerson said in an interview. "If you think about it, having a democracy of sorts there could change the total face of the Middle East, and so the impact of this is monumental."
The GOP-controlled committee approved the spending measure Thursday on a 47-14 vote. The bill goes before the full House and Senate next week. Besides money for U.S. military expenses, the bill has $18.6 billion in grants to help reconstruct Iraq.
Some of the Cape Girardeau Republican's fellow GOP conservatives wanted the money given as loans instead of grants, but the White House and Republican leaders managed to fend off those efforts. Loan backers said they want to protect U.S. taxpayers already saddled with record federal deficits
"My single highest priority as a member of Congress is to ensure we balance the budget," said Rep. John Culberson, R-Texas.
Emerson, who had kept quiet about her view of the plan, was among several lawmakers invited to the White House for briefings Wednesday. Secretary of State Colin Powell gave a detailed presentation about Iraq's inability to sustain more debt.
Powell pointed out there is no governmental entity to receive such a loan and argued against a loan in light of upcoming talks with U.S. allies about aiding Iraq, Emerson said. President Bush spoke to the group after Powell's presentation and convinced loan proponents to back down.
One member of the group, Rep. Zach Wamp, R-Tenn., said Bush spoke passionately: "My God, if his eyes had been lasers, mine would have been burned out," Wamp said.
Emerson didn't call herself a loan supporter, but said she had heard concerns from constituents about giving such a large sum of money to Iraq free and clear. But she said Bush "made it pretty clear at that point that the administration knew a lot more than I did about this issue and that it was important to follow their lead."
She said the encounter was different from other occasions when GOP leaders and the White House have lobbied the rank-and-file to support legislation.
"It was a very substantive, very thorough, very good exchange of ideas," she said.
Republicans were divided on the loan issue, while Democrats were sharply divided on the overall package. Fifteen Democrats voted for the spending, but 14 Democrats in the House Appropriations Committee voted against it.
"We have been led into a pre-emptive war that has left us isolated from our allies ... and holding the bag financially, militarily and politically for the reconstruction of Iraq," said Wisconsin Rep. David Obey of Wisconsin, the panel's top Democrat, who opposed the bill.
Emerson was pleased at provisions in the bill ordering more detailed reporting on how the money is spent. She acknowledged that money already spent on reconstruction has "probably not" been thoroughly accounted for.
"But we're going to start here," she said. "Keep in mind that much of what we were doing in the past, we had to do very, very quickly. I think in retrospect, even the administration would say we probably should have provided Congress with better accounting. But from this point forward, I believe there will be very good accounting."
Omitted from the measure were funds sought by President Bush to buy $50,000 garbage trucks, outfit traffic police and create ZIP codes. In all, the House Appropriations Committee excised nearly $1.7 billion that had been sought by the White House.