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House passes $87.5 billion package for Iraq, Afghanistan

WASHINGTON—Bending to President Bush's demand that U.S. aid to Iraq must be given as grants, not loans, the House of Representatives Thursday night approved of spending $87.5 billion on Iraq and Afghanistan.

The package was approved 298-121, and amounted to a decisive, albeit wary, endorsement of the president's policy of occupation in Iraq. The Senate is expected to pass the package on Monday, which would make it the most ambitious post-war effort since the Marshall Plan helped rebuild Germany after World War II.

The final bill would provide $64.7 billion for U.S. troops, $400 million less than Bush sought. Lawmakers also trimmed Bush's Iraq reconstruction request from $20.3 billion to $18.6 billion. But the president prevailed over broad sentiment in Congress that Iraqis repay $10 billion of that amount.

Negotiators working out differences between the House and Senate versions of the bill added $400 million to Bush's request for Afghanistan relief and reconstruction, making it total $1.2 billion.

They also stripped out other Senate provisions opposed by the administration that would have added $1.3 billion for veterans' health care and would have called on the Pentagon to add 10,000 troops to the Army.

They also dropped language in both House and Senate versions that encouraged Iraqis to write a national constitution guaranteeing freedom of religion. Though the administration took no official position on that portion of the bill, critics said it could complicate U.S.-Iraq relations by inserting American values into the Iraqi constitutional process.

The loan provision dominated attention on the spending request. The Senate insisted in its bill that $10 billion of the reconstruction money be offered as a loan that could be forgiven if other nations waived their Iraqi IOUs. The House had no similar provision, but lawmakers there passed a nonbinding resolution backing the Senate position.

Bush threatened to veto the bill if the loan language survived, arguing that the United States shouldn't add to Iraq's massive debt. Despite efforts by Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas and other Republican loan advocates to work out a deal, negotiators on Wednesday struck it from the bill.

"I think that the (negotiators) probably have a tin ear to what the American people are saying to them," said House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. "Why should our children pay the bill down the line if the oil wells are going to be gushing and other countries are going to get their loans repaid?"

In reducing the president's request for reconstruction money, lawmakers knocked out money for garbage trucks, a ZIP code system and housing developments. Addressing congressional concerns that the money be spent appropriately, negotiators also inserted a provision creating a watchdog post of inspector general for the Coalition Provisional Authority, the U.S.-led administrative entity in Iraq.

The bill would expand health care coverage to reservists and National Guard members and their families if they can't obtain employer-backed insurance. Currently, only active-duty soldiers get health coverage. The provision is for a one-year pilot program and would cost about $400 million. Support for the provision reflected the increased role the guard and reserves have had as a result of the Iraq war, with more than 220,000 called to active duty.

Lawmakers also shifted some other money from Bush's request, adding $500 million to the Federal Emergency Management Agency to respond to Hurricane Isabel and the California forest fires. It also includes money for peacekeeping in Liberia.


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