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Rebuilding Iraq

Public skepticism has made Bush's request for reconstruction funds a hard sell in Congress.

October 05, 2003|Janet Hook | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — What will it take to rebuild war-ravaged Iraq? An electric transmission network, 3,528 housing units, 160 bridges, two prisons, faster mail delivery, a pediatric hospital and much, much more, according to the Bush administration's proposal for Iraq's reconstruction.

Just the sorts of facilities and infrastructure that U.S. taxpayers see crumbling in their own communities as federal, state and local governments struggle with fiscal crises at home.

And the fact that President Bush proposes to spend billions of dollars on Iraq's problems while similar American needs go begging is creating powerful domestic political pressure in Congress as it weighs his request to spend $20.3 billion in one year on the reconstruction of postwar Iraq.

"The Iraqis get $6 billion for an electric grid, and we get a blackout," said Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.), author of a proposal to require the government to spend as much on reconstruction in the U.S. as it does in Iraq. "They get a spanking new children's hospital, and we close the doors in America to uninsured children."

Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.), mocking the $9 million requested to modernize Iraq's postal system, wondered aloud, "How has Iraq made it for these thousands of years without Americans helping them develop a ZIP code?"

Johnson and Emanuel belong to the opposition party, but Republicans are uneasy too. Some have suggested that, at the very least, all this investment should be made in the form of loans, not outright gifts. Before the war, administration officials testified before Congress that Iraq's oil revenue would pay the bulk of the country's reconstruction cost.

And a recent survey by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that 59% opposed Bush's request for $87 billion for Iraq and Afghanistan, including the reconstruction aid.

That popular skepticism is putting the brakes on what Bush had hoped would be warp-speed congressional action on his funding request.

Many members of Bush's own party are balking at the idea of shelling out U.S. taxpayer dollars for an array of Iraqi projects. That has abruptly turned the issue into a heavy lift for the administration in Congress, where Republican leaders were forced last week to shelve plans to muscle the bill through the Senate in a matter of days.

"We're still in the selling mode," conceded a White House official who asked not to be named.

It still seems likely that Bush will win approval of the $87 billion. But the debate in Congress is dovetailing with speeches by Democratic presidential candidates who are hammering Bush for his postwar Iraq policy and for shortchanging domestic spending priorities. Criticism of the reconstruction funding plays into both.

The struggle also underscores how much the legislative and political landscape has changed over the last six months, in ways that work to Bush's disadvantage on two fronts: Lawmakers are both less deferential to Bush and more concerned about the burgeoning budget deficit than they were last spring, when they practically rubber-stamped Bush's first request for war funding.

The $87-billion request now before Congress includes $66.4 billion for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, funding that enjoys broad bipartisan support. But controversy has swirled around the remaining $20.3 billion that is proposed to rebuild and stabilize postwar Iraq. It includes $14 billion for electricity, water and other infrastructure projects; $5 billion for security and public safety measures, and $300 million for refugee and human rights initiatives.

Qualms about the reconstruction money have been spurred in part by documents that the administration submitted to justify the spending request, which spelled out in minute detail how it plans to use the money. That has created a rich field of targets for Democrats, who have highlighted items that seem unnecessary or extravagant.

They question a $100-million allotment to enroll 100 families in a witness protection program; $1 million per family, they say, compares with $10,273 under the U.S. witness protection program.

The request in some places sounds like a big-city mayor's wish list: $2 million for 40 garbage trucks; $697 million to improve sewer services; $8 million to expand employment centers; a $150-million pediatric hospital.

That argument may help Democrats score political points, but whether it will help reshape the budget is another matter. Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.) last week offered an amendment shifting $250 million from the witness protection program and other reconstruction projects to pay for more combat equipment for U.S. troops. The amendment was rejected, 49-37.

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