The New York Times
WASHINGTON, Sept. 8 — Members of Congress said today that President Bush would get the $87 billion he requested for Iraq and Afghanistan, but that he would have to walk through a bit of fire first. Lawmakers said they expected sharp questioning of the request and a renewed debate about the effect on federal spending, taxes and the record-setting deficit.
Many members predicted that pressure would build immediately on nonmilitary programs, including the proposal to add a drug benefit to Medicare. Lawmakers noted that the amount requested in this single bill represented a fifth of all money to be spent next year on nonmilitary programs like education, housing and veterans affairs, many of which are already being squeezed by a deficit that will reach $480 billion.
"It's stunning in its size," said Senator Carl Levin of Michigan, the ranking Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, noting the overall $166 billion to be spent on Iraq this year and next. "It's astronomical when you compare it to the arguments we have over things like after-school programs."
Some skeptical Republicans said they wanted to know why more Iraqi oil money could not be used for reconstruction, and they questioned some of the grander plans for rebuilding the country. Democrats said the request put further tax cuts in question, and many are demanding that equal attention be paid to construction work in the United States.
Of the $87 billion sought in the package, $20.3 billion is for rebuilding and security in Iraq, only a small fraction of what will ultimately be needed for the reconstruction of that country.
"People are going to want to ask a lot of questions over here," said Representative William M. Thornberry of Texas, a Republican member of the Budget and Armed Services Committees. "They'll want to see a lot of details, particularly about oil revenue. But in the end, they'll support it, mostly because there is really no alternative."
Mr. Thornberry said the size of the commitment could force Congress to slow down on spending elsewhere, and predicted that some members would now be far more reluctant to approve a prescription drug benefit for Medicare or other big-ticket spending proposals.
After being briefed by administration officials on Capitol Hill today, one Republican official said the real cost of reconstruction would be $75 billion. After contributing $20.3 billion, the administration expects Iraqi oil revenues to supply another $12 billion, with the international community contributing the balance of $42.7 billion, the Congressional official said.
"That's a lot of change left on the table for our allies to pick up," the official said. "If our friends don't come through, this is going to be much more expensive than it now looks."
Democrats, aware of the growing pressure on their own spending priorities, said staying in Iraq should not require domestic sacrifices, and promised an intense debate on the administration's agenda. Nearly 75 Democrats in the House are co-sponsoring a bill written by Representative Rahm Emanuel of Illinois that would require the administration to spend the same amount on rebuilding schools and hospitals in the United States as it spends in Iraq.
Although it has no chance of passage, Mr. Emanuel's bill is intended to demonstrate to the public the choices made by the administration, and the party's leadership plans to do the same. Senator Tom Daschle of South Dakota, the Democratic leader, said the administration must not neglect the needs of American children in overcrowded classrooms as it brings stability to Iraq. Representative Nancy Pelosi of California, the House Democratic leader, said taxpayers deserved to know how spending on Iraq would affect unmet domestic needs.
"Congress will provide our service men and women with whatever resources they need to accomplish their mission," Representative Pelosi said. "The president's spending request on infrastructure will be subjected to a higher level of scrutiny."
Two senior Democrats said the spending bill required holding back the president's tax cuts for wealthy taxpayers. Representative Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, the Democratic Whip, said the cuts had left the nation ill prepared to fight against terrorism. Representative John M. Spratt Jr. of South Carolina, the ranking Democrat on the Budget Committee, said the cuts for upper-income Americans should be suspended as an example of the sacrifice called for by the president.
The president's request, which is in addition to a $79 billion spending bill for the Iraq war approved by Congress just five months ago, left even conservative members staggered by the cost. Several Republican members said they had expected a request for $60 billion to $70 billion, and some openly questioned whether the administration was being too generous with taxpayer dollars.
"I still remember candidate Bush's maxim that we shouldn't be nation builders," said Representative Tom Feeney, Republican of Florida. "We can't be the nanny of the world. We have an absolute responsibility to protect the safety of American men and women over in Iraq, but not when it comes to writing checks for their schools and health systems."
But Representative Rob Portman of Ohio, a member of the House leadership and a White House ally, said that the administration had spent weeks preparing the request and that it would be able to "justify every dime of it" when the bill reaches the Capitol in the next week or 10 days. Representative C. W. Bill Young of Florida, the Republican chairman of the Appropriations Committee, said he would "aggressively expedite" the bill once it arrives, but other members said that with hearings and additional scrutiny, the process could take longer than the three weeks spent on the April bill for Iraq.
Several senior Democrats are planning to demand an accounting of international cooperation before they approve the reconstruction money. Senator Levin said the proposal would require the administration to report to Congress on its efforts to round up global support and explain which countries are taking part and which have refused. The reconstruction money would be released when the report is received, he said, adding that the military portion of the bill would probably be approved with few objections.
If approved by Congress, President Bush's supplement spending request for Iraq would aggravate the administration's already severe fiscal problems just as it heads into an election year — the worst possible time to push for spending cuts in other programs. Adding $87 billion to the budget for 2004 would raise the government's projected deficit for next year to $550 billion. More worrisome to economists than the absolute number of dollars involved is that the deficit would amount to nearly 5 percent of the nation's gross domestic product. That is clearly entering the danger zone, approaching the record percentage level reached under President Reagan in 1986.
The additional money for Iraq would make it all the more unlikely that Mr. Bush can reach the goal, established just two months ago, of reducing the expected deficit by half — to $238 billion — by 2006.
White House officials said today that they would not offset the costs of the bill by either postponing the tax cuts or cutting nonmilitary spending this year, thus adding the full amount of the bill to the deficit. One official said the actual spending from the bill would be $60 billion in 2004, keeping the deficit at $540 billion, which the official said could still be cut in half within five years.
Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company