- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 21, 2003

The Bush administration yesterday said the president should veto the Iraq spending bill unless senators drop their provision that would make half the reconstruction money a loan, rather than a grant, to Iraq.

Including loans will slow efforts to stabilize the region and it “impairs our ability to encourage other nations to provide badly needed assistance without saddling Iraq with additional debt,” Josh Bolton, director of the Office of Management and Budget, wrote congressional leaders.

Mr. Bolton said the president’s advisers would “recommend that he veto the bill” — the typical language for conveying a veto threat — if it included loans. He also said using loans “raises questions about our commitment to building a democratic and self-governing Iraq.”

The president has requested $87 billion to resupply the U.S. military, continue the global war on terror and help rebuild Iraq. Both the House and Senate last week approved versions of the bill, but the Senate voted to make half of the reconstruction money a loan. Now House and Senate negotiators are hammering out differences — chiefly the loan proposal.

With Republican leaders in both chambers opposed to loans and their hand now strengthened by the president’s threat, the president is virtually guaranteed to receive a bill from Congress to his liking.

“It effectively seals the deal that the president will prevail in the House-Senate conference,” said Stuart Roy, spokesman for House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, Texas Republican.

Sen. John Ensign, Nevada Republican and loan supporter, said the letter’s language still leaves the president “wiggle room” and promised to keep fighting for the loans.

“We knew the odds were against us going into conference, but we’re still going to push it,” he said.

He and other backers object to the fact that other nations such as France and Germany stand to be repaid on their loans from the Saddam Hussein era. The provision allows the loan to be forgiven if other nations also forgive Iraqi debt.

Still, most loan-backers are expected to support the final bill even if all the reconstruction money is grants rather than loans.

But Sen. Robert C. Byrd, West Virginia Democrat, who tried but failed to pass a series of amendments to alter the bill, said he would just as soon see the president veto it.

“I encourage the president to veto the supplemental bill, loans or no loans,” he said. “It is a bad bill, based on a bad policy in Iraq.”

And Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, South Dakota Democrat, said the veto threat exposes a conflict in the administration’s rhetoric.

“The Senate was told there was an urgency to passing the supplemental because our troops in the field greatly needed the resources,” he said. “Now the administration is willing to significantly delay the enactment of this bill because of their opposition to a loan for Iraq.”

Meanwhile, the House yesterday passed a nonbinding motion in support of the Senate loan proposal, 277-139, with several dozen Republicans voting for it. The motion also called for $1.3 billion in veterans’ health care spending.

Rep. David R. Obey of Wisconsin, the top Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, said the vote was a “stunning defeat” for Mr. Bush.

House Republicans, though, said the vote was less an endorsement of loans than an expression of support for veterans.

Congress won’t pass a final version of the Iraq spending bill until next week, missing the president’s deadline of having a completed bill before this weekend’s donors conference in Madrid.

But House Appropriations Committee Chairman C.W. Bill Young, Florida Republican, said the fact that the Senate bill includes half of the reconstruction money as grants shows the United States is a benevolent force in the country.

“I think that gives Secretary [of State Colin L.] Powell and Secretary [of the Treasury John W.] Snow what they need to tell the donors conference they are committed,” Mr. Young said.

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