Congress approves billions in Afghan, Iraqi aid

Saturday, October 18, 2003

WASHINGTON -- The House and Senate decisively approved similar bills Friday giving President Bush roughly the $87 billion he wants for Iraq and Afghanistan, blessing most of his policies but challenging his plans for Iraqi reconstruction.

The lopsided votes -- 303-125 by the House, 87-12 in the Senate -- underlined the bipartisan, wartime support that exists for the lion's share of the legislation: nearly $66 billion to finance U.S. military operations over the next year in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But both Republican-led chambers chopped nearly $2 billion off the $20.3 billion he requested for retooling Iraq's oil industry, its court system and the rest of its economy and government. And in a direct rebuke of a White House lobbying campaign that Bush personally led, the Senate version would make half the Iraqi rebuilding aid a loan.

"The seriousness of the effort we are engaged in is starting to take hold," Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., told reporters, referring to the likelihood of a long-term U.S. involvement in Iraq. "There's a great unease about this reflected in Congress and across the land."

Congressional leaders said they will try to send a final bill to Bush by the end of next week. To increase U.S. leverage, they had hoped to complete it before donor nations meet in Madrid, Spain, next Thursday and Friday to discuss aid to Iraq, but the timetable for finishing the legislation could slip.

That compromise House-Senate bill, however, is likely to honor Bush's wish to deliver the Iraqi rebuilding aid as grants, not loans, several loan opponents and advocates agreed Friday.

Both sides agreed that with the bill top-heavy with money for U.S. troops in the field, even staunch loan supporters would be hard-pressed to vote "no" on final passage if the loan provision was dropped. One administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the chances of a loan provision surviving Senate-House bargaining were "slim to nil."

"If I have the votes, it does a disappearing act," said Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, a loan foe who will be a leader in the upcoming bargaining.

The House had voted against requiring Iraq to repay some of the aid. But many Democrats and conservative Republicans still prefer loans and may try exerting pressure on bargainers to structure some of the assistance as a loan.

Under the Senate provision, the U.S. loans would become grants if Iraq's foreign debtors forgive most of the money they are owed.

Since Bush unveiled his proposal on Sept. 7, its political soft spot was its aid for Iraq, and that persisted until the end.

Minutes before final passage, the Senate voted by voice to strip nearly $1.9 billion from that part of the bill, erasing money for ZIP codes, sanitation trucks and other items that some lawmakers had derided as frivolous. The House had already killed most of those same items.

The bills also contained rebuilding aid for Afghanistan; assistance for Pakistan, Jordan, and other U.S. allies; and cash for rewards for the capture of Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden.

Throughout, the debate mixed concerns about the U.S. role in the fight against terrorism with the political reality that the next presidential and congressional elections are barely a year away.

"I believe in this president. I believe in this military," Stevens said during the closing minutes of Senate debate. "Those who vote against this bill will be voting against supporting our men and women in the field. They're still in harm's way."

Standing just a few feet away, the Appropriations committee's top Democrat, Robert Byrd of West Virginia, fired back.

"I defy that statement and I hurl it back into the teeth of the senator from Alaska," Byrd said.

Byrd said opponents supported U.S. troops but opposed Bush's justification of the war with Iraq -- that it was a terrorist state against which pre-emptive action had to be taken.

"Fie on that doctrine of pre-emption," Byrd said. "That's a dangerous doctrine. Those who vote against this bill are voting against that doctrine."

In the House, the debate took similar turns.

"This is the exactly the moment when this House should step forward, when the country should step forward to show we have a commitment that will not stop," said House Majority Whip Roy Blunt, R-Mo.

But Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Fla., said the $87 billion would amount to $200 million for each of the 435 congressional districts in the United States if it was divided evenly.

"That means $200 million per congressional district that won't be used to build schools, provide health care or improve the nation's infrastructure," Hastings said.

Before passage, the House voted to transfer $98 million from the Iraqi reconstruction account to help troops on leave pay for transportation to their hometowns once they are flown back to the United States. The Senate had previously approved similar language.

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