Latest News

On voice vote, Senate OKs Bush's $87.5 billion spending package

WASHINGTON—The Senate on Monday sent President Bush an $87.5 billion spending package for Iraq and Afghanistan, capping a month of tumultuous debate in Congress over how much of a burden to place on American taxpayers for Iraq's reconstruction.

The Senate approved the amount by voice vote, avoiding a recorded tally on a bill the public dislikes but that Democratic and Republican lawmakers believe is unavoidable given the turmoil in Iraq.

"Despite my reservations, I believe that this package will pave the way to the day when our soldiers finally come home from Iraq," Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said in a sentiment echoed by many.

With only a handful of senators on the floor, the only audible "no" vote came from Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., one of the war's most vocal critics. The House of Representatives approved the measure Friday.

Democratic presidential candidates who serve in Congress were split when they first voted on the proposal last month. Sens. John Kerry of Massachusetts and John Edwards of North Carolina voted against the money. Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut voted in favor. In the House, Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio voted against the money last month and Rep. Richard Gephardt voted for it.

The bill represents the most ambitious reconstruction effort of a vanquished country since the Marshall Plan in post-World War II Europe. Advocates said that without the money, Iraq would be unable to emerge as a democracy and ensure its own security.

Even Democrats who voted against the use of force in Iraq a year ago said they had no choice but to support the spending bill.

"We must win the war that we started because the consequences of failure would be catastrophic," said Sen. Mark Dayton, D-Minn.

The Senate action came one day after 16 U.S. soldiers died in the deadliest single attack since Iraq was invaded eight months ago. The measure gives Bush practically everything he asked for, lending his management of Iraq policy the aura of a mandate despite widespread congressional misgivings about where his policy is headed.

The package includes $64.7 billion for U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan and $18.7 billion for reconstruction of Iraq.

The troop funds would pay for $17.8 billion in personnel costs, $39 billion in operation and maintenance and $5.5 billion in purchases, including $239 million for new armored Humvees at $225,000 per vehicle.

The Iraq reconstruction money, which generated the most debate, would provide nearly $3.2 billion for Iraqi police and a new army. It sets aside $5.5 billion to improve electrical transmission, $2.8 billion for potable water and $493 million for hospitals and clinics.

The president beat back efforts by lawmakers to make half the reconstruction money a loan rather than a grant; Republican leaders stripped that language from the bill before the final votes.

Responding to reports of no-bid contracts and cost overruns by firms involved in reconstruction, the legislation creates the post of a watchdog inspector general to oversee spending by the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority. It requires the inspector general to submit quarterly reports to Congress, but also gives the president the right to waive the reports, or portions of them, for national security reasons.

By avoiding a roll call vote Monday, senators, particularly Democrats, were able to sidestep a vote that many feared would be interpreted as support for Bush's Iraq policy. Indeed, several Democrats denounced the decision to go to war and the administration's course in postwar Iraq.

In a letter to Bush on Monday, top Senate Democrats urged him to set a specific timeline for Iraqis to convene a constitutional convention, complete a new constitution, hold a referendum on the constitution and have national elections. It was signed by Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota, Assistant Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, Joseph Biden of Delaware, Carl Levin of Michigan and John "Jay" Rockefeller of West Virginia.

"We must succeed in Iraq, and doing so will require that the United States stays the course," the letter said. "Central to staying the course is securing and sustaining the support of the American people. Their growing unease about whether your administration has a plan for succeeding in Iraq and the war on terrorism contributes to their concerns about the growing human and monetary costs of these efforts."

Levin called on Bush to reassemble Iraqi military units, saying the administration's decision to disband the military last May was a "major mistake." In an interview, Levin said Iraqi military units now were necessary because it was clear that foreign allies weren't inclined to supply troops.

"It still isn't too late if we're willing to give up some of the decision-making power at the civilian reconstruction level," Levin said. "But we were apparently not willing to give up enough to get other countries to come in with troops and with money."

Sen. Ernest Hollings, D-S.C., who voted for last year's resolution authorizing force, said his vote was a mistake. "We were misled," he said, comparing Iraq to Vietnam.

The choices now, he said, are, "You either get in or get out. We're in it halfway. This is half a haircut. We don't have enough in there to stop this daily killing.

"This is chapter and verse Vietnam."


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