Senate digs into Iraq $87 billion

Debate begins Monday with focus on proposals for billions to build everything from prisons to a modern post office.

After a week of intense questioning, Congress Monday begins to mark up President Bush's $87 billion wartime supplemental spending request - the largest ever sought by a president.

The White House says it's a must-pass request. If the United States loses the peace in Iraq, "we will have provided the terrorists with an incredible advantage in their war against us," presidential envoy Paul Bremer told senators in his first of six appearances before congressional panels last week.

It's an argument likely to prevail on Capitol Hill, but not before lawmakers scour the minutiae of the request, especially the $20.3 billion set aside for Iraq's reconstruction.

With thousands of homes in the D.C. area - including Mr. Bremer's - still blacked out seven days after hurricane Isabel, lawmakers especially focused on the contrast between spending in Iraq and needs at home. The White House proposes $5.7 billion to rebuild Iraq's power grid at a time when many Americans doubt the viability of their own, Democrats say.

This is also time when lawmakers are acutely aware of the half-trillion-dollar budget deficit. They also see domestic programs getting the ax at a time when the White House wants to fund similar projects for Iraq.

Norman Ornstein, senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, says: "It's very clear that the $20 billion [for Iraq] includes a wish list plucked out of thin air - and some extremely generous amounts for social programs and building houses."

He continues: "The further you get away from reconstruction of things destroyed during the war and the closer you get to welfare state support, the more vulnerable they become, because it's at precisely the point that the White House wants to cut those areas here in Washington."

One example is homeland security. Democrats note that the Bush administration rejected, as too costly, a $200 million Democratic proposal to increase support for US first responders, even as it proposed $290 million for the Iraqi police force. Similarly, a request for $125 million to hire 1,300 more customs inspectors on US borders was turned down, yet $150 million is proposed by the White House for 5,350 border inspectors in Iraq.

"Many of us on this committee have tried to better protect the American people from future terrorist attack, but time after time the administration has actively opposed efforts to boost homeland security," says Sen. Robert Byrd (D) of West Virginia, ranking member on the Senate appropriations committee. "Eyes have been trained solely on Iraq, while we remain vulnerable here at home."

Another risk for Bush and his GOP allies in Congress is that many of the items for Iraq look bloated. For example, why would new Iraqi prisons cost $50,000 a bed? "They're spending more on prisons [in Iraq] that we do in the US," says Sen. Patrick Leahy (D) of Vermont.

Iraq administrator Bremer explained to the lawmakers that the cement used in Iraq for construction must be imported, boosting the cost.

Even for Republicans who strongly support the war and the rebuilding, the numbers Mr. Bush proposes appear daunting.

Sen. Larry Craig (R) of Idaho says the citizens of his state have some apprehensions: "In a time of flat economies and large deficits, we are expending a phenomenal amount of money."

GOP Sen. Robert Bennett of Utah pressed for assurances that the US aims to provide "simply the absolute baseline, plain-vanilla kinds of security and services that are necessary," while leaving Iraqis to pay for the rest.

Mr. Bremer responded, "By 2005 Iraq's oil revenues should be more than sufficient to pay for the Iraqi government and provide an extra amount ... for ... either more electricity or more schools."

But in the near term, members of Congress expect Americans will be footing most of the bill. The World Bank estimates that Iraq will need as much as $70 billion in the next four to five years to get its economy going. This $20.3 billion would be the first installment.

At the same time, Iraq's foreign debt is close to $200 billion, including $116 billion in unpaid Gulf War reparations.

"How do I explain to my constituents that those who helped to prop up Saddam's regime - the French, the Russians and others - could potentially be repaid, but those who financed the war to liberate the Iraqi people will not be repaid?" asks Sen. Evan Bayh (D) of Indiana.

Democrats and GOP moderates are pushing to make convert some of the aid to Iraq into a loan.

A Senate vote is on the $87 billion is expected this week.

Iraq project sampler

The United States would spend $20.3 billion to rebuild Iraq under the latest spending proposal from President Bush. According to The Washington Post, some of the projects include:

1. Four-week business course for 2,000 Iraqis, $20 million ($10,000 per pupil).

2. Forty new garbage trucks, $2 million ($50,000 per truck).

3. Imported petroleum, including kerosene and diesel, $900 million.

4. Funding to bring in 100 prison-building experts for six months, $10 million ($100,000 per expert).

5. Seven planned communities to include 3,258 houses, roads, an elementary school, two high schools, a clinic, and a place of worship and market for each community, $100 million.

6. Witness protection program for 100 families averaging five persons per family, $100 million ($200,000 per person).

7. New curriculum to train the Iraqi army, $164 million.

8. Two 4,000-bed prisons, $400 million ($50,000 per bed).

9. Funding for 500 experts to investigate crimes against humanity, $100 million ($200,000 per expert).

10. Protection for 400 judges and prosecutors, $20 million ($50,000 per person).

11. Begin work on a $500 million to $700 million children's hospital, $150 million.

12. Overhaul business practices of Iraq's postal service, including start of ZIP code system, $9 million.

13. Computer study of the Iraqi postal service, $54 million.

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