- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 18, 2003

The question of how much taxpayers should spend on rebuilding Iraq broke into the open last week in Congress, revealing a slight erosion in Republican support for President Bush’s postwar plans.

The core debate came down to whether half of the $20 billion in reconstruction money that Mr. Bush wants should be a loan or a grant to help rebuild Iraq’s infrastructure. The administration is requesting a total of $87 billion in additional military and rebuilding funds, though $1.8 billion in public-works assistance was sliced from the Senate bill.

Democrats, and some Republicans, said that Iraq possessed vast oil resources and was capable of eventually repaying the United States, which is facing a $500 billion budget deficit next year and trillions of dollars in additional long-term debt.

A CNN/USA Today/Gallup Poll last week found that 57 percent of Americans opposed the $87 billion request and said Congress should not authorize it.

In a major rebuff Thursday to the president, the loan amendment was approved 51-47 by the Senate, thanks to eight Republicans who broke ranks with the White House to record their opposition to the $20 billion that will be spent to rebuild schools, roads, water-treatment plants, oil pipelines and electric utilities for the war-torn nation.

“It is very hard for me to go home to explain why you have to give $20 billion to a country sitting on $1 trillion worth of oil,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, usually one of Mr. Bush’s most loyal supporters.

Mr. Graham was joined by Sens. Sam Brownback of Kansas, Ben Nighthorse Campbell of Colorado, Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, Susan Collins of Maine, John Ensign of Nevada, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, and Olympia J. Snowe of Maine.

A similar amendment was offered in the House to require that Iraq pay back $10 billion but it was killed on a technicality without coming to a vote. When Democrats proposed yet another amendment, it lost, 226 to 200, and the entire spending package was overwhelmingly approved on a final vote of 303-125 — a show of strong bipartisan support for the postwar occupation and rebuilding effort that has been fiercely criticized by many of the nine Democratic presidential candidates.

Still, the White House was surprised that so many of its Senate allies were not fully behind the president’s spending request, despite a major lobbying effort by the administration.

“The administration strongly opposes efforts to convert any portion of this assistance to a loan mechanism,” the White House said in a statement. “Doing so would … raise questions about our commitment to building a democratic and self-governing Iraq.”

In the end, however, the whole exercise may just be some ineffectual budget-cutting posturing that won’t amount to much and Mr. Bush will likely get most if not all of what he wants, House and Senate Republicans said Friday.

Senate Republican advisers said yesterday that it was unlikely that the Senate’s loan changes or the reductions would remain in the measure that emerges next week from a House-Senate conference to iron out differences between the two bills. Several Republican lawmakers who voted for the loan plan said they intended to back whatever bill comes back for a final vote.

“Whatever happens in conference, I will vote for the bill. We need the money for our troops and Iraq,” Mr. Graham said in an interview Friday night.

One Senate aide said many Republican lawmakers were embarrassed by news reports that some of the reconstruction money would buy new garbage trucks, install a ZIP code system and build a new residential community and new modern classrooms. “We got negative feedback from constituents on that,” the aide said.

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