- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 4, 2003

The Senate yesterday approved President Bush’s request for an additional $87.5 billion to fund military operations and rebuilding efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan. The only remaining hurdle is Mr. Bush’s own signature.

Republican and Democratic lawmakers alike had initially bridled at the price tag — particularly the $21.8 billion in rebuilding funds — and demanded that the money be at least partially repaid with Iraqi oil.

Mr. Bush thwarted those efforts by threatening a veto, saying that Iraq should not be saddled with more debt.

Final congressional approval came yesterday with the Senate’s voice vote, meaning no roll call tally was taken of individual senators’ positions.

Leaders of both parties agreed to skip the roll call to protect Republicans from openly voting against their president and Democrats from public knowledge of a vote against funds for soldiers.

Sen. Richard J. Durbin, Illinois Democrat, has been a vocal critic of Mr. Bush’s handling of the war in Iraq argued that at least some of the spending should be converted to loans.

“As much as I believe that this war was begun in a wrong fashion with a policy that can no longer be defended,” Mr. Durbin said, “I have to say that as long as 120,000 of our best and brightest soldiers are over there risking their lives every single day, we have to stand by them.”

Mr. Durbin was not in the chamber for the voice vote.

The bill passed less than two months after Mr. Bush made his request — a period much shorter than more-routine appropriations bills often take — and included nearly everything Mr. Bush requested along with about $500 million in additional spending.

While passage of the bill is a huge legislative victory, Mr. Bush will still get sharp criticism from members of both parties over the issue of war spending.

Many, including some members of his own party, want to see Mr. Bush make good on his promise to get other nations to join American taxpayers in ponying up for the war and rebuilding effort.

Sen. Susan Collins, Maine Republican, said she is “very disappointed” that provisions to make Iraq repay the United States were stripped from the bill.

“Both the Senate and the House expressed strong bipartisan support for this approach and I continue to strongly believe that there are ways to structure our reconstruction assistance that would provide the Iraqi people with the assistance they need when they need it while lessening the long-term impact on the American taxpayers,” she said.

“We should make Iraq a partner in this rebuilding venture, not simply the recipient of our good will.”

In particular, supporters of the loan plan point to the fact that Iraq has the second-largest known oil reserves in the world with a capacity to generate $20 billion annually in just a few years.

But the country already faces $125 billion in loans to countries such as France, Germany and Saudi Arabia. Mr. Bush argues that if a pro-Western democracy is to take root in the Muslim nation, it must not be killed by debt even before it sprouts.

A key argument made by the Bush administration has been that giving the aid free and clear would improve the U.S. bargaining position to get other countries to cough up as well. But a donors’ conference last month in Spain produced just $13 billion in pledges from other countries, far short of administration estimates for rebuilding Iraq.

Several lawmakers reserved their deepest anger for any notion of permitting countries such as France, Germany and Saudi Arabia — which vehemently opposed the war in the first place — to collect on Iraqi debts incurred under the Saddam Hussein dictatorship while U.S. taxpayers pay to rebuild the country.

“Indeed, if the leaders of those nations had their way, Iraq would still be suffering under the brutal regime of Saddam Hussein,” Miss Collins said. “The American taxpayer will be justifiably furious if one dime of his money goes, even indirectly, to repaying the dirty debts of a dictator.”

Democrats have used the opportunity to rail against Mr. Bush and his handling of the war on terrorism in general.

Sen. Robert C. Byrd, West Virginia Democrat, called the approved appropriations request “a monument to failure.”

It “has been widely described as a victory for President Bush,” he said, stabbing his arms wildly into the air. “If hardball politics and lock-step partisanship are the stuff of which victory is made, then I suppose the assessments are accurate.”

Though yesterday’s vote had been a foregone conclusion since last week, the Senate allotted six hours of debate before the 5 p.m. voice vote.

As that time approached, Sen. Ted Stevens, Alaska Republican and chairman of the Appropriations Committee, remarked on the rhetoric.

“Today, thankfully, this bill will pass,” he said. “And yet we’ve had six hours attacking the president because he asked for the money. People are willing to let the bill pass without a [roll call] vote and yet they want to criticize the president for asking for this money.”

Other senators to criticize the administration’s handling of the war on the floor during the afternoon included Byron L. Dorgan of North Dakota, Carl Levin of Michigan and Harry Reid of Nevada, all Democrats.

At exactly 5 p.m., Mr. Stevens asked to bypass even the voice vote and approve the bill by “unanimous consent.” The Democrats objected and it was put to a voice vote. Mr. Daschle — who faces re-election in a conservative state next year — and most other senators were absent from the chamber.

A chorus of “ayes” signaled all in favor. Then the presiding senator asked for those opposed. The chamber was silent except for Mr. Byrd, standing at his desk.

“No,” he said and smiled and gingerly sat down. The “ayes” had it.

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