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Democrats pair war funding plan with US projects

Appropriations bill seeks billions for domestic aid

WASHINGTON -- Democrats seeking votes for their Iraq-withdrawal plan have stuffed a war funding bill with billions of dollars for homeland security, healthcare, farms, New Orleans levees, home heating, and other causes.

Party leaders are trying to increase support in Congress for setting a deadline for ending US military combat in Iraq. The proposal has been included in a larger bill to fund US troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Some critics say the Democrats are being opportunistic -- using a must-pass military appropriations bill to carry items that can't advance as easily on their own.

But many Democrats say Congress should not approve $100 billion for Iraq and Afghanistan without devoting considerable sums of money to the home front.

"I think we also have to make sure that we don't lose sight of what we have to do here at home," said Representative Rahm Emanuel, Democrat of Illinois.

Already, money in the bill not directly related to the war exceeds $20 billion.

Highlights of the proposed domestic additions include:

$4.3 billion in disaster aid, aimed chiefly at farmers in the drought-stricken Great Plains and California growers hurt by a freeze earlier this year.

$3.5 billion for medical care for veterans and active duty troops.

$2.5 billion for homeland security projects such as additional cargo screening at ports and airports.

$2.9 billion for levee improvements and other aid for the Gulf Coast.

$1 billion to prevent or prepare for a possible avian flu epidemic.

$735 million to close shortfalls in the State Children's Health Insurance Program.

$500 million in "emergency" money for a Western fire season that has yet to start.

$400 million in additional heating subsidies for the poor.

The proposals have drawn objections from Republicans who say Democrats are using the measure to muscle federal dollars back home. "Wartime funding should be not used as a gravy train," said Senator Judd Gregg of New Hampshire.

But Gregg said the White House would be hard-pressed to veto the bill over the add-ons -- though a veto promise hangs over the bill because of its higher-profile provisions setting a deadline for ending the US military role in Iraq.

The drought disaster aid package has already been scaled back, in part to make room for $74 million for a peanut storage program that pays storage and handling fees as farmers market their crop.

Representative Sam Farr, Democrat of California, is pressing for $25 million for spinach farmers who pulled produce from market shelves after last year's E. coli outbreak.

Meanwhile, David R. Obey, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee and Democrat of Wisconsin, has proposed a 13-month extension of income subsidies for small dairy farms. The extension would cost $283 million.

The domestic extras offer virtually every lawmaker a reason to vote for the Iraq funding bill, regardless of their feelings on the war .

Democrats insist they aren't being bought .

"Absolutely not," said Representative Jim Costa, a Democrat representing a farm district in California's Central Valley. The California delegation is demanding help for citrus, avocado, and other farmers facing $1.2 billion in losses from a devastating January freeze.

"I would support this one way or another," said Representative Earl Pomeroy, Democrat of North Dakota who is a driving force behind the drought aid package.

In some cases, such as drought aid for farmers, new money for veterans ' medical care and additional aid for the Gulf Coast, Democrats are fulfilling promises from last year's campaign.

Still, the need to maximize the vote count among Democrats makes it harder for party leaders to say "no" to lawmakers whose requests are more parochial.

Republicans accused Democratic leaders of larding the bill with spending aimed at greasing its way through Congress.

"They've tried to appease every member of Congress, every coalition, every interest group, by loading this bill up," said Representative Ray LaHood, Republican of Illinois. He said the strategy risked having the bill collapse.

"If this is a sweetener deal, then it makes me real sour on the whole bill," said Representative Lincoln Davis, Democrat of Tennessee.