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Congress approves Bush's post-war spending requests

WASHINGTON—Congress approved President Bush's post-war spending requests Friday, authorizing up to $87 billion for military operations and reconstruction in Iraq and Afghanistan, but showed signs of wariness over the human and financial costs of the war.

Immediately after passage of slightly different bills by each house of Congress, Republican leaders began working to strip a Senate provision that requires $10 billion of the money be issued as a loan, not a grant.

The loan, contained in the Senate bill but not in the House of Representatives version, has become an important test for Bush, who adamantly opposes lending money to Iraq and has urged a $20 billion grant instead.

Though most lawmakers conceded the president would ultimately get his way, Republicans and Democrats warned that the high price of securing and rebuilding post-war Iraq could turn public sentiment against the president's Iraq policy.

Bush has argued that loans could prompt foreign critics and Iraqis to accuse him of having designs on Iraq's oil, a sensitive charge given his and Vice President Cheney's past ties to the oil industry.

But Democrats and Republicans complained that he has turned a deaf ear to the concerns of their U.S. constituents.

"Convincing (allies and Iraqis) is important, however, it's not more important than making sure that we do something that the American people can be supportive of," said Sen. Ben Nelson, a conservative Nebraska Democrat who helped fashion the Senate's loan package.

Republicans bristled at the White House tactics used to dissuade members from supporting a loan.

"We're a co-equal branch of government," said Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind., whose loan proposal was ruled out of order in the House. "Some of the rhetoric I got from down the street (the White House) was not reflective of that. I don't work for the president. I work for the people of Indiana."

Friday's votes raised the United States' total spending in the war effort to more than $160 billion and signaled a long-term commitment to shaping Iraq's future. The House and Senate bills would earmark $65 billion for U.S. military operations.

The House bill, which passed 303-125, set aside $18.2 billion for Iraq reconstruction and $1.2 billion for Afghanistan. It also includes money for Liberia and Sudan. The House bill carried a total price tag of $86.9 billion.

The Senate version, which passed 87-12, also totaled nearly $87 billion. Senators on Thursday cut $1.8 billion from the administration's $20 billion Iraqi reconstruction request, but added $1.3 billion for veterans' health care.

Trimmed from both the House and Senate bills were administration line items such as money for prisons, garbage trucks, consultants and a postal ZIP code.

Passage of the spending bill was an important achievement for Bush. But the strain between Bush and lawmakers hinted at potential trouble for the president if casualties in Iraq continue to mount.

"There is a great unease about all this reflected in the Congress and across this land," said Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., a decorated Vietnam veteran. "We had three more young people killed last night. We are getting deeper and deeper into something we've never been in before in this part of the world."

The two bills must now be reconciled in a House-Senate conference, where the administration is determined to turn the $10 billion loan back into a grant.

"If I've got the votes, it does a disappearing act," said Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee who will lead the conference committee with his House counterpart, Bill Young, R-Fla.

Stevens said he also wanted to restore some of the money that the House and Senate cut from reconstruction.

Even supporters of the loan said they would vote for the final bill if the grants were restored and the loan proposal dropped. The portion that went for U.S. troops was hardly challenged and by linking the two, lawmakers faced the choice of voting for the full amount or against money for the military.

"Sure, I've gotta support the troops," said Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., one of the loan backers.

The Senate bill also required the administration to add 10,000 soldiers to the Army. That provision, passed by voice vote, reflected worries among senators that the number of U.S. troops is insufficient to carry out a long-term commitment in Iraq, despite administration assurances to the contrary.

"You can't run people that hard," Hagel said. "It means lapses in judgment, it means accidents, it means killing innocent people."


(Sumana Chatterjee contributed to this story.)


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