House approves $87.5 billion Iraq package

WASHINGTON – Saying the United States cannot turn back on its commitments, the House gave President Bush the $87.5 billion he sought to make Iraq a secure and free country.

The Senate planned to approve the package on Monday in a vote that will send the package to the president.

“The funding package is an essential part of the Iraq exit strategy,” said Rep. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., the House’s No. 3 Republican. “The sooner we bring prosperity back to the region, the sooner we bring our sons and daughters home safe.”

The 298-121 House vote late Thursday night was a victory for Bush, but came with pointed questions from Democrats about the wisdom of an Iraq policy that is costing American lives and dollars with limited help from the international community.

“Because President Bush lacked an adequate plan for postwar Iraq, American soldiers are taking virtually all of the risks and American taxpayers are paying virtually all of the bills,” said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., who voted against the measure.

The package, for expenses during the current budget year, includes nearly $65 billion for U.S. military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and $18.6 billion to rebuild Iraq and improve the country’s security and law enforcement.

The package closely mirrored the amounts sought by the president, and met his demand that all the money for rebuilding Iraq be in the form of grants rather than loans.

House-Senate negotiators, in working out the final details of the package, eliminated a Senate provision that would have required that half the money for Iraqi reconstruction and security forces be given as loans instead of grants.

The House also supported the concept of loans in a nonbinding vote, with many lawmakers arguing that Iraq, possessing the world’s second largest oil reserves, would some day be able to repay any debts.

The administration said the president would veto the bill if it contained loans, saying loans would be a deterrent to efforts to persuade other nations to forgive Iraq’s debts accumulated during Saddam Hussein’s regime.

That convinced some who originally pressed for loans, including Rep. Zack Wamp, R-Tenn. “We were all hit with sticker shock: $87 billion is a huge number,” he said. “I’m going to grit my teeth and vote yes tonight and say that we cannot afford to fail in Iraq.”

Eighty-two Democrats voted for the measure, while five Republicans opposed it.

The Iraq reconstruction money includes $3.2 billion for security and law enforcement, $5.6 billion for the electric sector, $1.9 billion for rebuilding the oil industry and $4.3 billion for water and sanitation. Afghanistan would receive $1.2 billion for rebuilding efforts.

The legislation also designates $245 million for peacekeeping activities in Liberia, $44 million for a secure embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan’s capital, and $50 million to reward those providing information leading to the capture of Saddam and Osama bin Laden.

Negotiators also added $500 million for Federal Emergency Management Agency assistance to cover the wildfires in California and elsewhere.

Earlier Thursday the House approved another spending bill for the 2004 budget year that began on Oct. 1, a $20.2 billion Interior Department bill that includes nearly $3 billion to fight and prevent wildfires.

The Senate, meanwhile, approved a $18.4 billion foreign aid bill after agreeing to add $289 million to combat the global AIDS epidemic.

With the additional AIDS money, the Senate bill would provide $2.4 billion for overseas AIDS programs in 2004. Last May Bush signed into law a five-year, $15 billion bill to fight AIDS in 14 African and Caribbean countries, and AIDS advocacy groups had pushed Congress to fully fund the $3 billion allowed in the first year of the program.

The Iraq bill is H.R. 3289.

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