- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 25, 2001

The House yesterday rejected efforts to cut funding for President Bush's $676 million South American anti-drug effort.

Lawmakers from both parties have become nervous about the U.S. military's involvement in Columbia and other Andean nations and increasing reports of civil rights violations by those nations.

But pressure from the White House and House Republican leaders prevailed, leaving opponents of the anti-drug mission short.

"Big victory," said John Feehery, spokesman for House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, Illinois Republican, after the House rejected 240-88 an amendment that would have diverted $60 million from the Andean Counterdrug Initiative and from foreign military assistance intended to supplement that effort.

The money would have instead gone to increase funding to international child survival and health programs.

The speaker, who by tradition rarely votes, voted against the amendment offered by Rep. Barbara Lee, California Democrat.

"The speaker feels very strongly that we need to continue the fight against drug lords [in South America]," Mr. Feehery said. "Drugs kill 10,000 kids every year. We have to do something about it."

Opponents of the program attacked it on a number of fronts. They argued that the initiative could become a military entanglement reminiscent of Vietnam; that there have been increased civil rights violations by government-supported right-wing paramilitary groups in Columbia; that anti-drug efforts should focus more on domestic drug treatment; and that international health aid, particularly to combat AIDS, is more important.

Proponents said the Andean Counterdrug Initiative, created by President Clinton in 2000 as Plan Columbia, has not yet had time to reach fruition; that left-wing paramilitary groups are guilty of far worse atrocities than their right-wing counterparts; and that the legislation already contains sufficient funding for international health care initiatives.

While some had worried that centrist Republicans might hand the president a defeat on the issue, only 15 Republican lawmakers voted for the Lee amendment yesterday.

Democrats, on the other hand, saw 35 defections, mostly from Texas, Connecticut, Florida and Arkansas.

Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, Maryland Democrat, voted against the Lee amendment, arguing that it was too inexact. While it may have been intended to remove military aid from the Andean Counterdrug Initiative, he said the amendment as drafted could have allowed cuts to non-military aid going to Columbia and its neighbors.

Rep. Jim Kolbe, Arizona Republican, agreed, saying the amendment "cuts development and humanitarian assistance … destroying the balance of the bill."

Rep. Jim McGovern, Massachusetts Democrat, said "our legislative intent is being made clear. We are sick and tried of the continued collaboration with paramilitary groups."

Despite the early victories, Republicans leery of a subsequent defeat reached a compromise with Rep. John Conyers Jr., Michigan Democrat, that would allow the White House to waive a 300-person cap on civilian contractors involved in the initiative.

"Allowing an unlimited amount of 'military contractors' to be employed by the State Department in Columbia … opens the door to a serious military escalation in Latin America," Democrats said in a briefing paper.

The White House has argued that the 300-person cap "greatly reduces" its ability to pursue an anti-drug effort in the region.

The compromise would leave in place a cap of 800 persons for both civilian contractors and military personnel. The compromise requires the White House to tell Congress when the cap on 300 civilian contractors is exceeded.

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