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Senators Scale Back Funding for Building Projects in Iraq

A panel warns against establishing permanent U.S. military bases. The spending bill includes money for aircraft the Pentagon doesn't want.

April 05, 2006|Peter Spiegel | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Senate appropriators Tuesday joined their House counterparts in warning the Bush administration against using taxpayer money to build permanent military bases in Iraq, stripping $177 million from the president's request for emergency defense construction projects in the country to underscore their point.

The move, which cuts nearly in half the $348 million the administration had sought for bases and roads inside Iraq, came despite approval by the Senate Appropriations Committee of an emergency spending bill that added $15 billion to the overall amount requested by President Bush in February.

The $107-billion Senate bill, which passed the committee overwhelmingly, provides $67.6 billion for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and includes billions more in aid for victims of Hurricane Katrina as well as other spending, such as avian flu protection. The bill is expected to go before the full Senate at the end of the month. If Congress approves it, the bill would take total spending for the wars to more than $400 billion since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

As in the House version of the bill, Senate appropriators included a strongly worded warning to the Pentagon that they will not approve emergency funding for "requests which propose a longer-term presence" in Iraq.

"While these projects may indeed be of military value, they intend a more permanent presence than is the policy of the United States," the Senate committee said in a report accompanying the spending bill.

Pentagon and State Department officials have insisted that the U.S. military is not building permanent American bases in Iraq and that all facilities currently under construction will eventually be handed over to the Iraqi government. Administration officials remain noncommittal, however, over whether they will seek agreements with the new Iraqi government that would grant the U.S. military long-term access to the bases -- agreements similar to those the government has with other countries in the region, including Kuwait and Qatar.

Most of the funding stripped from the president's construction request came from a proposed $167-million project to build a series of roads in Iraq to bypass major urban areas, a project military commanders insist is needed to avoid roadside bombs common in cities. The Senate committee reduced the project to $38.7 million, saying it did not believe the roads would reduce the threat from insurgent attacks.

Three other Iraqi base construction projects proposed by the Bush administration were either killed or greatly reduced, including a 6,000-soldier dining hall and a new facility to organize and support large supply convoys at Tallil air base in southern Iraq.

Senate appropriators used the emergency spending bill to inject new money into weapons programs that the administration either curtailed or killed in its 2007 budget request.

For example, the bill includes $227.5 million for the C-17, a hulking cargo plane that has been heavily used in both Iraq and Afghanistan. The Pentagon has proposed ending all funding for the aircraft, which would leave the Air Force with 180 instead of the 222 it wants, but senators said they were concerned the lower numbers would not meet the military's needs.

In addition, senators included $230 million for the controversial V-22 Osprey, the glitch-plagued tilt-rotor aircraft that is the highest procurement priority of the Marine Corps. The administration had cut about $1 billion from the program as part of a defense planning effort last year, but Senate appropriators said spending on the aircraft should be accelerated because Marine helicopters are deteriorating and defects in the Osprey have been ironed out.

Senators focused closely on the bill's hurricane provisions. Sen. Mary L. Landrieu (D-La.) withdrew a proposed amendment to the Katrina relief portions of the bill that would have called on the Bush administration to come up with a funding plan to rebuild levees and coastal areas in parishes surrounding New Orleans.

Instead, Landrieu wrote a letter to the White House threatening to block all executive branch appointees until the president comes up with a comprehensive rebuilding request, which she estimated could cost $6 billion.

In addition, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) won unanimous committee support for an amendment that would provide $22.3 million to strengthen levees in the Sacramento area. The House version of the emergency spending bill, however, contains no such provision.

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