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Senate approves $94.5b for Iraq war, storm relief

WASHINGTON -- The Senate sent President Bush a $94.5 billion emergency spending bill yesterday, meeting his funding requests for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and providing new aid to Gulf Coast hurricane victims.

The 98-to-1 vote on the compromise House-Senate legislation provided much-needed funding to support US troops overseas. Most of the money -- $66 billion -- goes to the Pentagon for operations overseas.

Bush praised Congress for providing funds to ``fight terrorism, defend our homeland, enforce our borders, and fulfill our moral obligation to help our fellow Americans in need."

The bill would bring to almost $320 billion the tally for the campaign in Iraq and $89 billion for the one in Afghanistan.

Only Senator Arlen Specter, Republican of Pennsylvania, voted against the bill. He is opposed to a provision endorsing Bush's $873 billion cap on the annual appropriations bills that Congress passes each year. Specter is pushing for $7 billion in additional money for education and health programs.

Still, there is increasing concern in Congress about the cost of the war in Iraq and the fact that the spending is kept on a set of loosely policed books that are kept separate from the rest of government operations.

Final action on the bill was welcomed by Gulf Coast lawmakers, especially relatively junior Louisiana delegation members who felt their Katrina-devastated state was shortchanged in a similar measure last December.

The bill contains $3.7 billion for Louisiana flood control projects, and that state's two senators, Democrat Mary Landrieu and Republican David Vitter, said they are confident their state will receive $4.2 billion of $5.2 billion contained in the bill for direct grants to states. Louisiana plans to use its share to rebuild housing.

``Many people didn't have insurance because they weren't in a flood plain," Landrieu said. ``And then the levees broke and people, middle-income families, wealthy families, and poor families lost the largest asset they had."

An earlier veto threat by Bush forced senators to strip some things out:

  • More than $14 billion for such things as aid to farmers outside the hurricane zone and for the Gulf Coast seafood industry.

  • Democratic initiatives to beef up port security and veterans medical services.

  • A controversial plan backed by Governor Haley Barbour of Mississippi, a Republican, and the state's powerful Senate delegation to pay CSX Transportation $700 million for a recently rebuilt freight rail line along the coast so the state could use its path for a new highway.

    Notwithstanding approval of the emergency spending measure, lawmakers are getting restless over the practice of funding wars through ad hoc supplemental bills outside the annual budget and thus not subject to budget limits that curb the growth of other government programs.

    On an unrelated defense policy bill, senators Wednesday voted 98 to 0 for an amendment by Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, to require future funding for the wars to be considered in the same way as other government spending measures.

    ``This bill continues the charade that this war should be funded off-budget instead [of on-budget], including the money our troops need in the regular budget that's requested by the president and sent to us," said Senator Patty Murray, Democrat of Washington.

    The bill adheres to Bush's demand for a bill capped at $94.5 billion, including $2.3 billion to combat avian flu, though lawmakers found extra money for grants for Mississippi, Texas, and Alabama by cutting back on the Federal Emergency Management Agency's chief disaster fund.

    That move raises the likelihood that more FEMA funds will have to be approved before the end of the year if not before Election Day.

    The compromise bill includes Bush's plan to provide 1,000 more Border Patrol agents along the Mexican border, send about 6,000 National Guard troops there, and build detention space for 4,000 illegal immigrants.

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