WASHINGTON, Sept. 30 (UPI) -- Senate appropriators approved a measure Tuesday giving President Bush the additional funding he requested for military and reconstruction activities in Iraq, opening the first door in the White House's effort to secure the $87 billion it says is needed to ensure success in the country.
Because of the immense amount of money involved, the effort to grant the special funding request has met with increasingly vocal opposition from congressional Democrats and more muted criticisms from some Republicans. Nevertheless, the U.S. House and Senate are expected to ultimately provide almost everything the administration requested.
One thing that remains unclear is whether Senate Democrats are willing to go the extra mile to ensure the Bush administration is accountable in the way their rhetoric indicates they feel is needed.
They argue that assurances are needed that the money spent on reconstructing the country does not represent wishful thinking on the part of unprepared Bush administration officials repeating the mistakes made in not planning for post-war needs.
Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., failed in his effort Tuesday to split the bill by Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, into two separate measures. According to Byrd's plan, one bill would provide $65.6 billion in uncontested military funding, while senators could continue to debate a second bill to provide the controversial $20.3 billion in reconstruction funds.
At the committee hearing where the Stevens' funding measure was approved, Byrd, the ranking Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, said that Bush is asking Congress to blindly shovel money into the hole he has dug for himself in Iraq that is the result of a "lack of clear post-war planning."
He added that spending the money now places the United States on the hook for future funds, adding that the descriptions of the reconstruction programs listed in the president's funding request are peppered with terms like "initiate" and "seed funding."
Byrd said this means additional funding request will be made, despite the claims otherwise by top Bush administration officials like Ambassador Paul Bremer, head of U.S. civilian operations in Iraq.
"I am no spring chicken and I was born at night but not last night," said Byrd. "I have seen enough requests like these to know these projects will need a lot more money than the president is telling us right now. Read the fine print. The president will be back next year with his hand out again."
It is proposals like spending $35 million to build 11 dams as well as water supply infrastructure in rural Iraq that have some members of Congress up in arms, especially Democrats who say that the request comes amid record budget deficits and at the expense of domestic programs that help needy American citizens.
Other controversial proposals include $875 million for improved water resource use in Iraq, including rehabilitation of irrigation systems and environmental restoration of marshland, $100 million for an Iraqi witness protection program, two $200-million prisons, and $9 million to automate Iraq's postal system and establish ZIP codes.
Raising a potential election issue for 2004, Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., noted at the hearing the Bush administration wants to spend $100 million to build new houses and schools in Iraq, while money for such efforts in the United States under the federal government's Hope VI community development program was removed from the president's 2004 budget.
Stevens lead the Republican charge against Byrd's proposal, arguing that military funding and reconstruction funding are interconnected and separating them would delay the return of troops.
Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., agreed, saying that if senators have problems with the proposed allocation, they should address them in individual amendments.
"If you separate these packages, we do not know when the reconstruction will begin," said Domenici, "We will be debating the reconstruction six months from now."
Despite the discussion in the press and among pundits about members of both parties seeking changes in Bush's reconstruction request, the phenomenon failed to show its head during the committee mark-up with committee Republicans showing nearly unwavering support for the Stevens' bill and complete support against Byrd's amendment, which failed to be approved in a vote along party lines.
Despite Byrd's failure to split the bill, an effort is expected to separate the military and reconstruction spending on the Senate floor. However, Republican leaders have pledged to keep the measure intact.
In addition, Senate Democrats are expected to continue efforts to promote alternative funding mechanisms for Iraq's reconstruction, like securing the country's future oil revenues and giving the reconstruction funding as bonds pegged to Iraq's future proceeds.
Democrats failed to amend the Stevens bill in this regard during Tuesday's approval.
Committee Democrats pointed out that that Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, Vice President Dick Cheney and other Bush administration officials said in the run up to the war that the money for post-war reconstruction could be financed by Iraq's oil revenues.
"The administration has rolled out the rope and hung themselves with their own rhetoric," said Durbin. "There is no reason for the American taxpayer to bear this burden."
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., plans to bring the bill to the floor Tuesday night in hopes of passing it by the end of the week, likely without most members having even read it. But the reasons for the rush are unclear given that the House has yet to even draft its version of the bill.
Several Democratic Senate aides and foreign policy analysts told United Press International that despite some criticism from Democrats, Senate Republicans are likely to be successful in pushing a bill through the Senate in the same way the Patriot Act was pushed through Congress.
Several foreign policy and budget experts on Capitol Hill and in think tanks around Washington agreed that while the deficit-related questions raised by Democrats regarding the reconstruction request have merit, the criticisms ring hallow.
"If the Democrats are serious, they will try to block the bill," said one Republican Senate aide.
But such a move is a gamble because public sentiment against the war is likely not strong enough to balance out the effort the Bush White House and congressional Republicans have made to classify the measure as important to protecting American troops in Iraq.
Senate and House Republican leaders have promoted the funding request with gusto, including spinning it as a way to avoid more terrorists attacks like those on Sept. 11, 2001.
But many charge this view is a significant stretch, given that the funding bill does not deal with fighting terrorism in any direct way, only reconstruction Iraq and supporting the efforts of American troops in the country.
In addition, experts generally agree the terrorist element in Iraq, while stronger than before the war because of the U.S. invasion, is not yet a worry to domestic security.
Nevertheless, there are rumors of a possible Democratic filibuster, likely headed by Byrd. But it is unclear and unlikely that Senate Democrats will be willing to go out on such a long and dangerous limb for what is only potential political capital in 2004.