- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 30, 2003

President Bush won a big victory on the emergency spending bill on Iraq and the war on terrorism after House and Senate negotiators voted yesterday to make the Iraq reconstruction money a grant rather than a partial loan.

The House-Senate conference committee last night approved the president’s overall $87.5 billion spending request mostly intact after first turning back a Democrat-led effort to make about half of the $18.6 billion in Iraq reconstruction money a loan.

“To suggest the way we can help [Iraq] best is by more debt load is ridiculous,” said Rep. Jerry Lewis, California Republican, referring to the foreign debt that Iraq incurred under the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein.

Mr. Bush had threatened to veto the bill if part of the money was in the form of a loan.

Yesterday, the U.S. administrator in Iraq, L. Paul Bremer, briefing lawmakers on Capitol Hill, thanked Congress for supporting the president.

“We’ll put that money, that American taxpayers’ money, to good work in finishing the job of reconstructing Iraq,” he said.

A final vote on the bill in the House and Senate might come this week, and passage is considered certain. Even some lawmakers who had supported loans said they will vote for the final bill in order to support the U.S. military, which will receive $64.7 billion from the bill to resupply stocks and continue the war on terror. The bill also includes $1.2 billion for Afghanistan reconstruction and almost $3 billion in other spending, including disaster relief for fire-stricken California.

Meanwhile, World Bank President James Wolfensohn yesterday said in a speech to the National Press Club that Iraq has about $120 billion in foreign debt and that about two-thirds of that debt should be forgiven in order to give Iraq “a real chance of getting back to equilibrium.”

At a donors conference in Madrid last weekend, the United States secured $13 billion to go along with the money contained in the U.S. emergency-spending bill. Even with the U.S. grants, the Iraq pledge total remains short of the $56 billion the World Bank has estimated will be necessary over the next four or five years to rebuild Iraq.

Those who backed loans said their proposal would give the president leverage to push for forgiveness. The proposal, which passed the Senate two weeks ago, would allow Mr. Bush to forgive the loan to Iraq if other nations forgave 90 percent of Iraq’s existing foreign debt.

Yesterday, Democrats, led by Sen. Robert C. Byrd, West Virginia Democrat, tried to get the conference committee to accept the Senate position.

Mr. Byrd called it a way to “jolt the White House into realizing Congress is not a presidential lap dog,” and other Democrats said without the amendment, U.S. taxpayers would be paying for Iraq’s reconstruction while Iraq would soon be using its oil revenues to pay off its debts to other nations.

“We’re asking U.S. taxpayers to be Uncle Sucker rather than Uncle Sam,” said Rep. David R. Obey, Wisconsin Democrat.

But Republicans said no official Iraqi government exists to contract for a loan right now and said grants would benefit the country most.

“America will be recompensed 50 times over if this thing gets ended and they have a strong country,” said Sen. Pete V. Domenici, New Mexico Republican.

The Senate conferees voted 16-13 against the loan proposal, with all 15 Republicans and Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, Hawaii Democrat, favoring a total grant.

With the White House lobbying hard, two Republicans who had supported loans on the Senate floor — Sens. Sam Brownback of Kansas and Ben Nighthorse Campbell of Colorado — opposed the loans yesterday.

Camden Hubbard, spokeswoman for Mr. Campbell, said recent overtures by other nations that they might be willing to forgive debt swayed Mr. Campbell to support a grant.

Brian Hart, a spokesman for Mr. Brownback, said that during the initial Senate vote, his boss was worried about fiscal responsibility and was particularly concerned about some of the items included in the reconstruction package, such as new trash trucks.

“He felt through the conference process they were able to make those changes and the bill was more fiscally responsible,” Mr. Hart said.

Negotiators yesterday also rejected a Democrat-backed proposal to make Mr. Bremer’s position as head of the U.S.-led reconstruction effort subject to Senate confirmation.

“We confirm a second lieutenant, and yet here is an individual that has more money under his direction than under seven federal departments,” Mr. Byrd said.

But Republicans said Senate confirmation of Mr. Bremer’s post could turn into a mess, as several judicial nominees currently are being filibustered in the Senate. The proposal was defeated on a party-line vote by the negotiators.

“I’m not sure the American people equate accountability with confirmation by the United States Senate,” Mr. Domenici said.

Still, some Republicans said they shared their colleagues’ frustration with the amount of information and help the Bush administration has provided Congress.

“The administration has been arrogant on this,” said Rep. Frank R. Wolf, Virginia Republican, who said it was particularly disappointing given that he has been a strong backer of Mr. Bush’s Iraq policy.

Negotiators did agree to add $500 million to the bill as the first installment of federal disaster assistance for fire-plagued California. Lawmakers all agreed that it was just a “down payment” and that several billion dollars will be needed by the end.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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