Questions growing over request for $87b
WASHINGTON -- President Bush's request for $87 billion for Iraq and Afghanistan drew heavy fire yesterday on Capitol Hill, where Republicans joined Democrats in questioning whether Washington should be running up its own budget deficit to rebuild Iraq's infrastructure.
After two weeks of hearing complaints from constituents, and the release yesterday of two polls suggesting increased opposition to the Bush plan, key members of the Senate said yesterday that they were worried about both the fiscal impact and the political fallout of spending billions of dollars overseas when states and localities are hurting for cash.
The growing skepticism about Bush's funding request reflects a new willingness on Capitol Hill to challenge the president's mission in Iraq, which would consume the lion's share of the funds, especially with frustration growing over the administration's failure to attract more nations to share the peacekeeping burdens.
"The cost is the issue that is really driving home a lot of opinion against the war," said Senator Lincoln Chafee, a Republican from Rhode Island. He said that voters in his state are frustrated about local concerns, such as upgrading a sewage plant, and that he hates to tell them there is no money.
He said he believes spending tens of billions on Iraq will "absolutely" hurt Republican campaigns next year, unless the country stabilizes and the economy recovers.
Other key Republicans agreed, even though many said they expected Congress would eventually provide money for military operations in Iraq, if not rebuilding. The administration wants to set aside $20.3 billion of the $87 billion request for the reconstruction of postwar Iraq, but senators in both parties said they may seek to restrict that spending.
"I think there's going to be a huge fight," said Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona. "I think it will go through, but it will be a long, arduous, and very combative" process.
Senator Pete Domenici, Republican of New Mexico, predicted that the entire $87 billion package could be killed if opponents mounted a filibuster, and other GOP senators said they weren't happy about being asked by their party's president to approve such a big appropriation.
"I don't like that amount of money, and I don't like the reconstruction money," said Senator Trent Lott, Republican of Mississippi.
Senator Peter Fitzgerald, Republican of Illinois, said backing Bush's request was "the right thing to do," but he acknowledged, "We're leaving ourselves open to political attack" by spending such a sum overseas.
Reflecting political nervousness over the issue, Republicans lashed out yesterday at Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts, for saying last week that the Iraq War was a "fraud" cooked up in Texas.
"I have great respect for Senator Kennedy, but I think that is a slur on my home state," said Republican Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas.
Kennedy, in response, declared that "this administration and my colleagues across the aisle are trying to deflect attention away from the administration's failed policy in Iraq." He called the Bush policy "a colossal failure. Our soldiers are paying for it with their lives."
Kennedy's comments were made as congressional Democrats stepped up their attacks on Bush, sensing a greater vulnerability in the president. A Gallup Poll yesterday put Bush's approval ratings at 50 percent, the lowest of his presidency. And a Pew Research Center poll, also released yesterday, indicated that 59 percent of Americans oppose Bush's request for the $87 billion.
The administration has said the money is necessary because Iraq's infrastructure is in dire shape, partly from war damage and partly from neglect during the regime of ousted dictator Saddam Hussein.
But in Congress, where lawmakers are weighing competing demands for domestic spending, there is a reluctance to spend billions of dollars on Iraq when the federal deficit is expected to near half a trillion dollars this year. A Democratic House analysis released yesterday estimated that the postwar effort could cost $238 billion to $309 billion over the next 10 years, including the added interest on the national debt.
Tom Daschle, the Senate minority leader and Democrat of South Dakota, said he is opposed to spending taxpayer money on rebuilding, as opposed to military, costs. Instead of the US writing a check for $20.3 billion, Iraq should be able to use its oil-development potential as collateral for a loan, he said.
Other key senators echoed Daschle, saying that while Congress would probably be inclined to support the troops with additional military funding, a separate vote on the $20.3 billion rebuilding request would probably fail.
"I'm still looking at it," said Senator Olympia Snowe, Republican of Maine and a leading deficit hawk on Capitol Hill. "I want to see what contributions other countries are making."
But the prospects for persuading allies to foot the bill for rebuilding postwar Iraq are uncertain. More than 60 international donors, scheduled to discuss those costs at a conference in Madrid next month, are expected to contribute no more than $2 billion -- a figure that pales beside the World Bank's estimate of $70 billion in reconstruction costs over the next four to five years.
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