- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 25, 2003

As of last week more than 100 members of Congress had traveled to Iraq since major fighting ended, and their evaluations of the situation have helped President Bush as he pushes Congress this week to complete action on the $87 billion request to fight the war on terror and rebuild Iraq.

Most noticeably, some who voted last year against authorizing the president to go to war are now strong supporters of spending the money to rebuild Iraq, and they said visiting the country made the difference.

“You bet it did,” said Rep. Amo Houghton, New York Republican, who was part of a bipartisan House delegation that was in Iraq from Oct. 7 to Oct. 9. “I didn’t think we should do it in the first place, but once we did it, we’ll be in terrible shape if we get out of [Iraq].”

Mr. Houghton and seven other lawmakers — another Republican and six Democrats — who voted against the resolution last October authorizing the president to go to war, have now voted for Mr. Bush’s spending request following their trip to Iraq.

Others were convinced to support the president’s request that the $20 billion reconstruction money be a grant, rather than a partial loan. One of those was Sen. Larry E. Craig, Idaho Republican, who was one of the first Republicans to support loans but who, after seeing Iraq first-hand, was convinced the nation needed a grant.

“His time on the ground in Iraq definitely influenced that [decision],” said Craig spokesman Will Hart.

At least 20 congressional delegations — codels, in Capitol Hill-speak — have visited Iraq since May 4, just after the president said major combat was over. Following their return, lawmakers have said it’s had a profound effect on how they viewed the president’s request for funding and on how they see chances for success.

“I think we are all more optimistic about the ability of the Iraqi people to put it all together,” said Rep. William M. “Mac” Thornberry, Texas Republican, who led a nine-person delegation that returned last week.

Several Democrats said they decided to support the spending bill before their trips. But they said being in Iraq did convince them how much the rebuilding aspect is tied to the security of U.S. troops in Iraq.

“It really persuaded me how important the economic rehabilitation package is,” said Sen. Mark Dayton, Minnesota Democrat.

On the other hand, three Democrats who traveled to Iraq, meanwhile, voted for the use of force but against the spending bill.

One of those, Rep. Jane Harman of California, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, told Fox News Sunday last week her vote could be seen as a protest against the administration.

“I don’t regret my war vote, but my vote against the $87 billion supplemental yesterday, or three days ago, was a vote against having no plan going forward in Iraq,” she said.

Many of those who have traveled to Iraq have made a point of visiting with troops from their home states or districts, and checking on their needs.

The trips have also given lawmakers the expertise to tweak the president’s spending request. After hearing first-hand about the lack of body armor vests and properly armored Humvees, lawmakers adjusted the president’s bill to cover those expenses.

The Senate also voted to raise Army troop strength in Iraq by 10,000 soldiers — a need driven home to supporters after seeing how dependent the Iraqi operation is on National Guard and Reserve troops.

House Republican Conference Chairman Deborah Pryce of Ohio said the eyewitness accounts members have returned with have been critical to the debate.

But Ms. Pryce, who departed for Iraq as the leader of an all-female delegation this past week, said delegations can also shape the debate in Iraq. Her delegation’s focus is encouraging the role of women in the new Iraqi government.

“What we want to do is encourage and inspire these women to get involved, and encourage the male members of the government to make female appointments and get women involved from the very first stages,” she said.

Mr. Thornberry said he was slightly concerned that so many delegations were a small burden to the military forces on the ground, since each delegation requires security.

But he said his trip was very valuable to him, and said one important part was the chance to gauge what other members of the delegation thought about what they saw. Even though not all of those in his group agreed on how well the effort was going, they all came away from Iraq saying U.S. success is critical.

Rep. Barron P. Hill, Indiana Democrat, who was part of Mr. Thornberry’s group, said he voted to authorize the use of force last year and for the spending bill this year, but both were reluctant votes.

“Going into the trip I felt it was nearly impossible to pull this [reconstruction] off,” he said. “Being over there I concluded maybe, just maybe.”

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