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Campaign on Iraq Aid Heats Up

THE WORLD

Bush Cabinet launches a lobbying blitz to win over recalcitrant Republican lawmakers before a vote on funds for reconstruction.

October 16, 2003|Janet Hook | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Sen. Susan Collins of Maine was meeting with constituents in Bangor last week to talk about health care and the economy when one of President Bush's top lieutenants tracked her down to discuss an issue much farther from home: aid to Iraq.

The call was part of the administration's hard-hitting lobbying effort to persuade Collins and other dissident Republicans to stick with the president on his request for $20 billion to rebuild Iraq.

It is an extraordinarily intense campaign that underscores how important the battle over Iraq aid is to Bush's command of foreign policy -- and possibly to his political future.

The upper reaches of Bush's Cabinet have been deployed to lobby lowly backbenchers in the House. Lawmakers are being encouraged to travel to Iraq; almost a fifth of Congress members already have been sent. Bush is personally making the case to lawmakers with table-pounding, steely eyed determination.

"I'm not here to debate you," Bush said, interrupting one Republican senator at a White House meeting on the issue Tuesday, sources in attendance said.

"I have never seen the president angrier on an issue," one senator said later. "He was absolutely adamant. I was taken aback."

Bush's passion on the question of financing aid to Iraq -- and the resistance he is meeting in Congress -- also highlights the different political perspectives that the president and some of his fellow Republicans bring to the issue. Lawmakers are buffeted by constituents' qualms about spending so much money abroad while needs at home go wanting, but Bush's reelection prospects are more likely to stand or fall on the success of the U.S. mission in Iraq than on a domestic issue.

"Iraq is the whole ballgame for Bush, and they are bristling" over Democratic criticism, said an administration ally who asked not to be named. "Their dander is up."

"Clearly [members of Congress] are under pressure from home in a way that is deeply uncomfortable to them," said Ivo Daalder, a foreign policy expert at the Brookings Institution. "The president is coming out as forcefully as he is to reassure them [that] he knows this is a difficult vote."

The administration's lobbying effort has intensified as both the House and the Senate prepare for crucial votes this week. The House is expected to vote today on legislation that provides Bush most of the $87 billion he wants for Iraq and Afghanistan, including $18 billion of the $20 billion he has sought for Iraq's reconstruction. The Senate is expected to vote on a similar bill this week. And in both chambers, the administration's policy will be challenged by amendments that would require Iraq to share the cost of reconstruction by providing some of the aid in the form of a loan.

The administration vehemently opposes that idea, saying it would be an economic and political mistake to require repayment when Iraq already is saddled with tremendous debt to other countries from loans taken out by Saddam Hussein's government and reparations owed from the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

Success on this point is particularly important to the administration because Secretary of State Colin L. Powell will be traveling next week to an international conference in Spain at which the United States hopes to persuade other nations to contribute to Iraq's reconstruction -- by either providing direct aid or forgiving debts. The administration argues that Powell's leverage will be undercut if the United States is lending, not giving, its own money.

Seeking to avoid a rebuff by Congress on the eve of that conference, the White House invited two dozen senators to the White House to meet with Powell and budget director Joshua Bolten. Bush attended part of the session and showed no interest in compromising on the point.

"He tried to win it emotionally," said one senator who was in the meeting.

The Republicans whom Bush is trying to get in line are a diverse crowd. They are not just centrists, like Collins, who often find themselves at odds with the administration. They also include conservatives such as Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) and party leaders such as Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas). When the administration fought to win a crucial vote last week in the House Appropriations Committee, officials even had to plead for the vote of a two-term conservative Texas Republican, Rep. John Abney Culberson.

Forces in addition to big-gun lobbying are being deployed to build support for Bush's policy. GOP leaders have encouraged members to travel to Iraq -- in part because they have found that those who go come back more receptive to the administration's view.

"All the [congressional delegations] come back converted," said one official involved in arranging the trips.

Already, 75 House members and 25 senators have traveled to Iraq, the official said, and an additional 53 House members and 12 senators are planning to go.

Last week, Senate GOP leaders sought help from one of Washington's lobbying powerhouses -- the American Israel Public Affairs Committee -- to lean on Senate Democrats to support the president's request.

"We appreciate their support," said Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). "They've been working hard and we're grateful."

But Republicans say that no lobbyist has more clout on the issue than Bush, who is making his pitch with a passion that lawmakers say is rarely seen, even on such high-profile issues as Medicare legislation. Still, several senators emerged from Tuesday's White House meeting unpersuaded.

Graham warned that the president could ultimately undermine his own policy if public opposition to big spending on Iraq is not addressed by making some of the aid a loan.

"The president is very focused on getting the international community on board," he said. "But there is a domestic component that is not being attended to. I don't want to erode public support for what he is trying to do."

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