Democrats Lay Plans for $25B

Congressional Democrats are preparing to lock horns with the White House over its appeal for a $25 billion wartime reserve fund, and will seek to triple the request as well as reallocate Iraq construction funds to help offset it.

Senate and House Democrats charged that the administration is “lowballing” the actual amount needed to hide the cost of the war from voters.

“The idea is, ‘Let’s quit playing games,’” said a House Democratic appropriations aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “We shouldn’t put the war on a political calendar. Let’s be straight with people.”

Democrats have been mapping out a strategy for addressing the reserve request since President Bush announced last week his intention to seek the funding.

The administration claims this reserve fund will help bridge any funding shortfalls between the enactment of the 2005 appropriations legislation and a wartime supplemental bill the White House is expected to submit early next year. A formal request for the funding could be delivered to Capitol Hill as early as this week.

In the House, Democrats are crafting an amendment that would provide for between $65 billion and $75 billion, a figure a senior Senate Democratic aide confirmed is also being discussed on that side of the Capitol.

Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) said he plans to offer an amendment to the funding request that would reassign more than $16 billion already appropriated by Congress for the rebuilding of Iraq to help finance the administration’s new appeal. More than $18 billion of the $87 billion emergency supplemental approved by Congress last year was earmarked for reconstruction.

“It is unspent in the reconstruction funds and I am going to try and transfer that,” said Dorgan, who serves on the Appropriations panel. “I didn’t think we should have appropriated the money for the reconstruction anyway. That is the job of Iraq oil, to pay for reconstruction. So, I am going to try and transfer that.”

Chad Kolton, a spokesman for the Office of Management and Budget, said it was difficult for him to respond to actions not yet taken by Democrats, but implied the administration would not support it.

“Reconstruction is a critical part of what we are doing there and I think the Congress would agree with that given that they have appropriated these resources for the purpose of that rebuilding activity,” Kolton said. “These are resources that we would like to have in a reserve fund should they be needed to ensure that our troops have everything they need when they need it.”

There is a general consensus among Democrats in both chambers that there will be overwhelming support for the wartime package, but with a caveat. Several Democrats said they want every dollar accounted for in the wake of allegations the White House shifted money earmarked for Afghanistan to the Iraq war effort without informing Congress.

House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), an appropriator who has supported the Iraq spending requests so far, said he also plans to support the $25 billion request, but will push for an amendment requiring oversight of all the spending. He predicted a majority of the 205 House Democrats will support the additional spending.

“The issue will be how honestly we’re projecting this, what will be the deficits and the accountability of the expenditures,” Hoyer said. “Everyone is prepared to authorize the dollars necessary for our troops to make sure they can operate as safely as possible.”

A majority of Democratic Senators are also expected to endorse the package, Senators and aides predicted but will demand a specific line-by-line explanation of the funding.

“It should not be just a blank check for $25 billion,” said Sen. Carl Levin (Mich.), the ranking Democrat on the Senate Armed Services panel. “It should be specific. If we are going to have any kind of accountability for the taxpayers funds, then Congress has got to assert a determination to see what is that money spent for.”

Even Sen. John Kerry (Mass.), who has sharply criticized Bush’s handling of the Iraq war, will support the request, a spokesman said Friday.

“He will support the supplemental funding,” said Andy Davis, a spokesman for the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee. “But he wants to make sure that it is adequate so the troops have what they need to meet their immediate needs, to protect themselves and do their jobs.”

While Democrats are expected to support the financial package, they will also continue to criticize Bush’s handling of Iraq as well as question his foreign policy skills.

As part of that, several House Democratic leadership aides said the minority will argue the Bush administration lacks credibility on the war and has short-changed security by failing to adequately pay to combat terrorism and equip U.S. troops properly.