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House panel approves Bush's $87 billion Iraq request

WASHINGTON—President Bush won a clear victory Thursday by persuading key House Republicans to support his plan to give rather than lend Iraq $18.6 billion to rebuild its decrepit economy.

The House Appropriations Committee endorsed the administration's grant approach and voted 47-14 to give the president almost the entire $87 billion he sought for Iraq and Afghanistan. The bill would provide $65.3 billion for military operations in both countries, $18.6 billion for Iraq reconstruction and $1.2 billion for Afghanistan. The rest would cover administrative costs in Baghdad and aid to Liberia.

The key committee vote paves the way for easy passage of the spending bill next week by the full House of Representatives. Democrats may try to amend the measure to turn the reconstruction aid into a loan rather than a grant, but without Republican support they cannot succeed.

The Senate is expected to pass a similar measure next week. Leaders in both chambers want to make sure the legislation is completed before Bush sends representatives to Madrid, Spain, on Oct. 25 to ask other nations to donate money for Iraq reconstruction.

Lawmakers from both parties had chafed at Bush's original request for $20.3 billion to rebuild the oil-rich nation. Led by Rep. Zach Wamp, R-Tenn., they wanted half the money to be doled out as a grant immediately and the remainder to be loaned after a democratically elected government was in Baghdad. Wamp had said Iraq's oil revenue should be used to repay the United States for its loan.

Bush persuaded Wamp to drop the loan effort.

"My God, if his eyes had been lasers, mine would have been burned out," Wamp said. The president said it would "jeopardize our ultimate success in Iraq," Wamp told his committee colleagues, then withdrew his loan amendment.

The administration contends that giving only loans to Iraq would bolster the stance of international critics who charge that America invaded Iraq for its oil revenues. Also, the administration says, loans would make other nations reluctant to donate money to Iraq. The donors' conference could turn into a lenders' conference, Bush argued.

Lawmakers also rejected, 36-25 along party lines, a Democratic amendment that would have set up a trust account at the World Bank to lend $7 billion for rebuilding Iraq. The amendment also called for paying for the $87 billion by canceling the 2001 income tax cut for the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans.

Prompted by reports that private firms Halliburton and Bechtel had won lucrative no-bid contracts to conduct reconstruction work in Iraq, lawmakers also required that the administration inform them of any contracts given without competition.

Incensed at reports that many soldiers do not have Kevlar body armor or water purification filters, lawmakers added more than $250 million for equipment to reduce casualties and improve the quality of life in a war zone. They also added money to hire Iraqis to clear unexploded mines and to contract civilian guards to replace reservists who secure Army installations. According to the Army, hiring security guards could allow 7,000 to 10,000 reserve soldiers to go home.

Even as they approved the new spending, many lawmakers expressed dismay that they have yet to receive an accounting for the $78.5 billion they approved for Iraq last April. They required additional reports on expenditures, saying they wanted to keep a closer eye on how the latest $87 billion is spent.

They are also waiting for the administration to turn over a classified report from the Joint Chiefs of Staff titled "Operation Iraqi Freedom: Strategic Lessons Learned." In a letter to Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, several Democratic lawmakers said they could not consider the spending request without reviewing the report, which was written in March.

"Our constituents are demanding that Congress exercise its constitutional responsibility to thoroughly assess the administration's post-war policies prior to authorizing $87 billion for military operations," according to the letter, signed by 30 Democrats led by Rep. Tom Lantos of California, the senior Democrat on the House International Relations Committee. No Republicans signed the letter.


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