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House committee to vote on Bush request for Iraqi, Afghan funds

WASHINGTON—The House Appropriations Committee is set to vote Thursday on a freshly scrubbed version of the Bush administration's controversial request for $87 billion for Iraq and Afghanistan.

Top House Republicans on the committee cut $1.62 billion from President Bush's request for $20.3 billion for Iraq's reconstruction, including $9 million to develop Iraqi ZIP codes and $153 million for garbage trucks. But they added $251 million for stronger flak jackets and other equipment to reduce U.S. troop casualties.

Many lawmakers in both parties worry that in an era of soaring U.S. budget deficits, American taxpayers will object to giving Iraq billions of dollars for reconstruction instead of lending the money, to be repaid once the country resumes oil sales.

"The Bush administration's plan would provide approximately $872 per person for the entire population of Iraq. The U.S. foreign debt was expected to exceed $2.7 trillion this year, and that means the average American would be shouldering more foreign debt than the average Iraqi," said Rep. David Obey, D-Wis., the top Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee.

Some lawmakers also want to keep tabs on the money because they fear it could be misused.

"There have been so many instances where the money has been misspent," said Rep. James Walsh, R-N.Y., a member of the Appropriations Committee. "We have to keep our hands as deep in this as possible, and that means having strict oversight, because when the stories about $500 hammers come out, I am going to be the one who is going to get hell to pay for it" from constituents.

Walsh joined 16 other lawmakers on a trip to Iraq, where they heard that soldiers were paying up to $650 out of their own pockets to upgrade the Vietnam-era flak jackets. The troops also said they wanted equipment that would help reduce casualties, such as portable devices to stop terrorists from detonating explosives by remote control.

The Defense Department did not equip soldiers properly, the panel's leaders concluded, so they added $251 million for body armor and other special devices. Congress has to make up for the Defense Department's "lack of planning," said Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Wash. "They just didn't have enough of them, but they should have."

Republicans on the Appropriations Committee also cut funding for programs they feared would be long-term drains on the U.S. budget, including $150 million for a children's hospital in Basra. Still, $793 million is slated for health clinics and hospitals in Iraq.

They also slashed $253 million from water and sanitation projects, cut money for such cosmetic improvements as airport parking lots, and eliminated $10 million to modernize business practices of the Iraqi television and radio industry.

The bill would provide $3.2 billion for Iraqi police and security forces, but lawmakers cut $50 million that the administration sought for buildings, vehicles and equipment for police. They also rejected $400 million to build two prisons at $50,000 per bed.

House appropriators did not eliminate all of the bill's contentious items. The measure would still grant $14.8 million for psychological programs to sway Iraqi public opinion in favor of the American occupation, and it would provide $19 million to develop wireless Internet systems.

It also would allocate $100 million for a witness protection program.

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(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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