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Senate Will Scrutinize Iraq Spending Request Today

Some legislators argue that part of the $87-billion package should be a loan.

September 30, 2003|Janet Hook | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The Senate today is scheduled to open formal scrutiny of President Bush's controversial spending request for Iraq, a debate expected to pose one of the toughest congressional challenges to the administration's foreign policy since the 2001 terrorist attacks.

Bush ultimately is expected to win approval of the $87-billion funding package he seeks, most of which would pay for ongoing military operations in Iraq and for reconstruction efforts. But at a time when the president's public approval ratings are falling and voter qualms about the situation in Iraq are growing, Democrats are determined to use the debate to extract a political price.

Even some of Bush's fellow Republicans are among those urging that Iraq eventually be required to repay part of the roughly $20 billion sought to rebuild its infrastructure. The administration opposes that idea, and one of the biggest tests facing Bush and his allies will be whether they can fend off such an amendment.

"It is going to be a tough fight," said Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska).

Members of both parties also have been raising questions about some of the specific items the administration wants to finance, including a $100-million witness protection program in Iraq and $9 million to upgrade the country's postal service.

Senators from both parties Monday stressed the magnitude of the decision facing Congress. Stevens called the funding bill "one of the most important pieces of legislation I will ever work on." The investment in reconstructing Iraq is "risky, very risky, but if it comes through we won't have an army of occupation," he said.

Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.), a leading critic of Bush's Iraq policy, argued that the funding request was just the beginning of a "major commitment of resources on behalf of the American taxpayer."

He noted that $87 billion was more than twice the administration's budget for homeland security this year. Also, the $20 billion in the package sought for Iraq's reconstruction is $2 billion more than the combined amount the United States would spend for foreign aid to all other nations.

"This is not a token amount," Byrd said.

The spending bill drafted by Republicans on the Senate Appropriations Committee contains virtually all of Bush's specific requests.

Byrd may try to slow action on the measure to allow more time for scrutiny. But most Democrats are loath to take the political risk of stalling a bill that includes funding for the U.S. military forces in Iraq.

One addition to the bill, unrelated to Iraq, is $32 million to reimburse New York City for the cost of protecting foreign diplomats since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The bill also would specify that none of its funds be used to reduce debts to other nations incurred by Iraq under deposed President Saddam Hussein.

Proposals to require that Iraq repay some of the reconstruction aid have gained support in part because lawmakers of both parties have said they viewed as politically awkward the expenditure of millions on Iraqi infrastructure when funding for similar projects in the U.S. is being squeezed.

Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.) plans to offer an amendment today to require that Iraqi oil be used as collateral for loans to finance reconstruction.

"Iraq has the second-largest oil reserves in the world," Dorgan said. "Those resources can and should be used to help finance reconstruction of Iraq."

Republicans who support that view include Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, who said she planned to offer a similar amendment during floor debate.

Administration officials and allies argue that the United States should not add to Iraq's already heavy debt burden. They also caution that tapping future oil revenue to finance reconstruction would fuel anti-U.S. arguments that the war was fought to help Americans profit from Iraqi oil.

For all the political appeal of making the aid a loan, "it isn't going to work in this world," said Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.).

Democrats also intend to push a proposal to ease the spending bill's impact on the federal budget deficit. The amendment, to be sponsored by Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, would offset the cost of the $87-billion measure by raising income tax rates on the wealthiest taxpayers.

Biden said the amendment was supported by all 48 of the Senate's Democrats and its one Independent. Biden picked up his first Republican co-sponsor Monday, when Sen. Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island announced that he would vote for the proposal.

Chafee was one of three Senate Republicans who opposed the tax cut measure Bush pushed through Congress this year. The other two -- John McCain of Arizona and Olympia J. Snowe of Maine -- so far have refused to back Biden's proposal.

McCain said he would not support it because he did not want to slow approval of funding for the military operations.

"Time is of the essence," he said.

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