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Republicans Want Iraq to Share Costs of Rebuilding

With hopes of help from allies dwindling, some say U.S. should be repaid with oil revenue.

September 19, 2003|Janet Hook | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — President Bush's request to spend more than $20 billion to rebuild Iraq's sewers, power lines and other domestic facilities is meeting resistance from an unexpected source -- Republicans in Congress, who have been among the staunchest allies of the administration's foreign policy.

The GOP lawmakers are demanding that some of the money be repaid by Iraq or be provided by allies who also stand to gain from stabilizing the region.

With prospects for allied contributions dwindling, some of the lawmakers say the United States should lay claim to a share of future revenue from Iraq's oil fields.

"It's only fair and right that a small portion of Iraqi oil revenues over the next 10 to 15 years be devoted to paying these costs," said Rep. Charles H. Taylor (R-N.C.), a senior member of the House Appropriations Committee.

Although Bush administration officials have repeatedly said that they expect Iraq to pay the bills over the long run, they have rejected the idea of making the initial aid, in essence, a loan rather than a grant. That would make it harder, they say, to deliver the money quickly or to round up international support for the rebuilding effort.

"The president decided to have the money provided as a grant because that is the best way to achieve the immediate and short-term objectives in Iraq -- stabilization, security and getting Iraq to the point it can pay for its own reconstruction," said Trent Duffy, spokesman for the White House's Office of Management and Budget.

Republican qualms arise from worries about the growing federal budget deficit, frustration with allies for not contributing more and the political fallout from spending billions on Iraq's infrastructure at a time when the GOP is trying to restrain spending at home.

Congress is not likely to scuttle the funding request, which is part of the $87-billion package Bush wants approved for military operations and the rebuilding efforts in Iraq and, to a lesser degree, Afghanistan. But the concerns of GOP congressmen reflect an underlying political reality as the president and his party head into the election year: Bush's foreign policy, once his trump card with voters, is no longer seen as an unalloyed benefit to him and fellow Republicans as the costs and casualties in Iraq mount.

Said an aide to the House GOP leaders, "It is hard for members of Congress to go home and say we're rebuilding Iraqi roads and schools, while constituents are asking, 'Why don't you get my road built and school fixed?' "

Against that backdrop, Republicans are not only questioning Bush's budget request but demanding that the administration do a better job communicating U.S. accomplishments in Iraq.

"There is some concern about the lack of good communication out of Iraq," said Senate GOP Conference Chairman Rick Santorum (R-Pa.). "We aren't telling the story effectively."

Foreign aid is never a popular item on Capitol Hill, so it was always likely that Congress would give scrutiny to the reconstruction money Bush seeks for Iraq.

The administration and key allies in Congress have rejected suggestions from some lawmakers that the military part of the overall funding package be split off and considered separately from the money for rebuilding.

"It just doesn't fly," said Senate Appropriations Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska). "It is all one package."

Republicans who support the requirement that Iraq repay the U.S. for reconstruction aid include Sens. Don Nickles of Oklahoma, who chairs the chamber's budget committee, Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas and George Voinovich of Ohio.

They and others argue that, especially at a time when the U.S. budget deficit is growing, oil-rich Iraq should be expected to eventually pay back something for its own reconstruction.

"Iraq is not Afghanistan," said Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine). "This is a country with considerable natural resources."

Nickles has raised his concerns about the reconstruction funding in meetings with Vice President Dick Cheney and Joshua Bolton, director of the White House Office of Management and Budget. Nickles believes that it is better foreign policy to give Iraq more financial responsibility, said his spokeswoman, Gayle Osterberg.

A senior aide to Senate GOP leader Bill Frist of Tennessee said Republicans are proposing payback mechanisms as a way to help make the aid request more palatable to a reluctant public.

Administration officials including Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld told Congress earlier this year that they expected Iraq to be able to finance much of its own reconstruction through oil revenue, frozen assets and other resources. They still say they expect that to happen in the long run.

But now, with some of the oil fields having been sabotaged and the nation's economy in shambles, administration officials say that it is unrealistic to expect Iraq to pay the initial costs of infrastructure that are so urgently needed to establish political stability.

Administration officials also argue that there are political and diplomatic risks to asking Iraq to bear the initial financial burden.

Democrats, meanwhile, are not hesitating to contrast the spending request for Iraq with needs at home.

Rep. David R. Obey of Wisconsin, ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, said an analysis by his staff of per capita spending proposed by Bush showed he was seeking $157 per Iraqi for water and sewer services, compared with $14 per person he wants for similar projects in the United States.

"His vision for Iraq is precisely the opposite of his vision for the U.S.," Obey said. "It is going to be difficult to sustain public support [for Iraq reconstruction] unless he recognizes there are equally legitimate demands here at home."

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