WASHINGTON—The $87 billion that President Bush seeks mainly for Iraq continues to cause political anxiety in Congress, prompting an unusual but largely meaningless about-face Tuesday in the House of Representatives.
House lawmakers voted 277-139 to instruct House and Senate negotiators on the final version of the bill to give $10 billion of the money to Iraq as loans, not outright grants as Bush has demanded.
Last week the House had backed Bush on the issue, but the Senate did not, voting instead to turn $10 billion into a loan. On Tuesday, Republican congressional leaders vowed to abide by Bush's wishes despite the House vote, which was largely symbolic. The vote allowed House lawmakers to tell their constituents they'd supported loans; polls show many Americans resent giving so much money to Iraq.
Meanwhile, the White House threatened Tuesday to veto the bill if it contained anything other than direct grants. It was the administration's strongest statement yet on the loan issue and came as U.S. officials prepared to meet with foreign ministers at a conference in Madrid intended to encourage international assistance for Iraq.
Bush has criticized the Senate's loan provision, saying it would discourage other countries from directing grants to postwar Iraq.
Republican leaders left no doubt Tuesday that the House vote was simply for show and would carry no weight with negotiators.
"I and a majority of the House conferees will vigorously oppose any attempt to provide the reconstruction funds as a loan," said C.W. "Bill" Young, R-Fla., the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. "The House will hold firm in support of the president, and in the end I expect the conference report will drop the loan provision."
John Feehery, spokesman for House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., dismissed the significance of the vote, saying many lawmakers were attracted to the motion because it also called for $1.3 billion for veterans.
"We have motions to instruct almost weekly that are not only ignored by the White House, but by us, too," Feehery said.
The House last week rejected a Democratic loan proposal while GOP leaders prevented a vote on another amendment that resembled the Senate loan provision. Republicans who backed the Senate plan were left with nothing to register a vote upon.
Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind., whose loan plan was squelched by the leadership, said Tuesday's vote gave Republicans an opportunity to "affirm the language in the Senate bill." Eighty-four Republicans joined 192 Democrats in voting for the non-binding motion.
"Ultimately, the consent of the governed drives the Congress," Pence said. "By demonstrating that some 270 members of Congress felt strongly about the loan language, it could contribute to a healthy national debate that will absolutely impact the outcome" of negotiations over the bill, he maintained, contrary to the position of congressional leaders.
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.