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Lawmakers Expected to Frown and Bear Iraq Funding Request

September 09, 2003|Janet Hook and Richard Simon | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — Members of Congress are preparing to swallow hard and pass President Bush's new funding request for U.S. operations in Iraq, but it will be a more bitter pill for many of them than earlier votes on the issue, lawmakers and political analysts say.

In the 11 months since Congress authorized the use of force against Iraq and the six months since it approved the first funding installment, the domestic and international landscape has changed in ways that are prompting greater scrutiny on Capitol Hill.

At home, the federal budget deficit has soared. In Iraq, U.S. casualties have mounted, while few allies have offered to help with postwar troops or funding. No weapons of mass destruction -- the administration's prime justification for the invasion -- have been found. Even some fellow Republicans are complaining that Bush and his aides inadequately planned for the rebuilding of Iraq after an unexpectedly rapid military victory.

Congress, in the end, is expected to give the White House the $87 billion it wants to pay for the U.S. missions in Iraq and, secondarily, Afghanistan. But the debate may find lawmakers more willing to question Bush's foreign policy than at any time since the 2001 terrorist attacks.

"At a time of war, the country desires to rally around the president. And we've done that," said Rep. Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.), a member of the House Appropriations Committee, which will handle the budget request. "But we're at a time now of keeping the peace with a huge budget request of $87 billion. It's not going to be near the rubber stamp as other things that have been brought to us since Sept. 11, 2001."

Lawmakers, echoing the view of many of their constituents, have been demanding that Bush do more to explain his long-term strategy in Iraq. Although Bush's speech Sunday night requesting the new money was generally well received, some analysts say he spent most of it making a case that is not widely disputed --that the mission should not be abandoned -- and little time addressing questions about the rebuilding plan.

"I don't think there is any reason to believe the public is going to say, 'Let's pull out,' " said Steven Kull, a public opinion expert at the University of Maryland. "But there's a widespread feeling [the administration] didn't plan well. Bush's performance review is not glowing in this, and I don't think anything he said Sunday is going to mitigate that."

Some lawmakers say Bush's budget request will focus attention on an element largely missing in earlier debates on Iraq: the magnitude of the challenge facing the United States.

"This is going to require everyone to face the reality," said Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.). "It's not just the money. It relates to the immensity of the task."

The one-year funding request also is likely to dwarf virtually all other spending bills Congress is considering. The $87 billion is more than would be provided in any one year under pending legislation to expand the Medicare program to provide prescription drug coverage. It is more than 11 of 13 annual appropriations bills Congress needs to pass to finance the routine machinery of government. It would raise the projected budget deficit for 2004 beyond the $500-billion mark.

Most Republicans -- even those who have long opposed federal deficits -- seem willing to vote for the money.

"While I think this will be expensive in the short run, I think the cost will be dramatically higher were we to either back out or fail," said Rep. John B. Shadegg (R-Ariz.).

Democrats are expected to intensify their criticism of Bush's handling of Iraq -- even while most continue to support the basic effort to stabilize the nation.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) is working with seven Democratic colleagues on drafting a resolution that would require the White House to submit within 60 days a detailed report to Congress on its plans for Iraq.

"After months of dodging questions, giving half-answers and ignoring congressional requests, the time has come for this administration to level with the Congress and the American people about Iraq," she said.

Some Democrats also plan to spend the coming weeks juxtaposing Bush's big spending request for Iraq against his opposition to more money for various domestic programs.

"The White House dismisses many [proposals] to improve education and health care and to equip our first-responders, yet those investments would pale in comparison to the tab the White House has begun to run in Iraq," said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.).

Rep. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), a member of the House GOP leadership, predicted that the roughly $20 billion tabbed for rebuilding projects in Iraq will be the most controversial element of the $87-billion package.

"There will be very strong support for giving the military what they need to complete the job," Portman said. "But there will be more discussion than we have had up to now on reconstruction and what it means."

Republicans are looking for ways to defray U.S. costs -- either by expanding the involvement of other nations or seeking reimbursement from Iraqi oil revenue.

"I think we need to get commitments of more support from other nations, and the U.N. in particular, before we approve any increase in funding for these operations," said Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.).

On Monday, British Defense Minister Geoff Hoon announced that his country would send about 1,200 more soldiers to Iraq, bringing the number of British troops there to between 10,000 and 12,000. But most other nations have demanded a U.N. mandate.

Robert Bixby, executive director of the Concord Coalition, a budget watchdog group, said he doubted concerns about cost and the growing budget deficit would do much to derail support for Bush's funding request.

"In the end, Congress will probably give the president at least as much money as he is asking for," he said.

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Janet Stobart in The Times' London Bureau contributed to this report.

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