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House Panel OKs Most of Funding Request for Iraq

Republican lawmakers' demand that oil revenue be used to ease the U.S. burden is quashed after pleas from President Bush and his aides.

October 10, 2003|Janet Hook | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — A key House committee Thursday approved most of the funding requested by President Bush for the occupation and reconstruction of Iraq, after heavy White House lobbying quelled a rebellion among Republicans who were demanding that Iraq eventually repay part of the aid for helping rebuild the war-scarred nation.

Bowing to personal pleas from Bush and his top foreign policy lieutenants, dissident Republicans on the House Appropriations Committee agreed to drop planned amendments to the $87-billion bill that would have made some of the reconstruction aid a loan rather than a grant.

The committee approved the bill, 47 to 14, after trimming almost $2 billion from the $20.3 billion Bush had requested for reconstruction.

The bill omitted money for several projects -- such as buying garbage trucks and establishing a ZIP Code system -- that members of both parties regarded as unnecessary or hard to justify at a time when domestic infrastructure projects are being squeezed.

The legislation, which goes to the full House next week, also includes $66 billion for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In another departure from the Bush administration's request, the committee increased by 50% -- from $800 million to $1.2 billion -- the funding being sought for reconstruction aid to Afghanistan. The additional money would be used to pay for roads, electricity, economic development and elections -- expenditures designed to improve the life of Afghans in tangible ways.

"We have to have the support of the Afghan people" to root out terrorists there, said Rep. Jim Kolbe (R-Ariz.), chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee on foreign operations.

The most serious challenge to Bush's aid request has come from Republicans, in both the House and the Senate, who have contended that Iraq, with its rich oil resources, should eventually repay some of the cost of reconstruction rather than American taxpayers being saddled with the entire bill.

The administration has argued vehemently against the idea, saying it would be counterproductive to add to Iraq's already heavy load of about $120 billion in foreign debt and almost $200 billion in reparations from the 1991 Persian Gulf War. In addition, the administration said, such a plan could undermine U.S. efforts to persuade other countries to make donations for Iraq's reconstruction.

The White House has yet to win that battle in the Senate, where the issue comes to a vote next week. But Bush won an important victory in the House by persuading Republicans on the Appropriations Committee to stick with him.

Rep. Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.), a member of the committee, had planned to offer an amendment to make half of the reconstruction aid available immediately as a grant and the second half as a loan after an Iraqi government is established.

The administration turned up the heat by having L. Paul Bremer III, the U.S. civilian administrator in Iraq, call Wamp to advise against introducing the amendment. Wamp was also called to the White House on Wednesday night for a meeting with Bush and Secretary of State Colin L. Powell.

Wamp said Thursday that he backed down in deference to Bush because the president was "passionate" about the point, telling the congressman that the amendment would jeopardize the U.S. mission in Iraq.

"That puts me in a tough spot," Wamp said.

Also dissuaded from offering a similar amendment was Rep. John Culberson (R-Texas), who had said he wanted to control the cost of the bill because of the exploding U.S. budget deficit, now forecast by the White House at about $475 billion for fiscal 2004. But he too backed down after a blizzard of lobbying from Bremer, budget director Joshua B. Bolten and other administration officials.

The committee also rejected a Democratic alternative that would have reshaped the aid package and paid for it by raising taxes on individuals in the highest income brackets.

Debate on the bill reflected concerns by members of both parties that the money be used wisely in awarding contracts to private companies -- and suspicions that some sole-source contracts already awarded to Halliburton Co., the oil services giant formerly headed by Vice President Dick Cheney, and other companies were not the best use of the money. The bill limits noncompetitive contracts and requires pre-award publication of any contract the administration wants to give out on a noncompetitive basis.

Congressional leaders hope to send the final version of the legislation to the White House before the late-October meeting in Spain of nations that might contribute to Iraq's reconstruction.

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