The U.S. Senate has begun considering a massive spending bill to pay for the war in Iraq and aiding the recovery of the storm-ravaged Gulf coast. Iraq war critics are using occasion to question the rising costs of the military operation.
Senator Thad Cochran, a Mississippi Republican and chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, opened the debate on the nearly $107 billion emergency supplemental bill.
"Overall, the bill can be described as having two major point of focus: first, it provides needed funding for our military to continue to carry out operations overseas; and it also includes the commitment to rebuild the Gulf coast to permit inhabitants there to recover from the devastation caused by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita," he said.
The measure calls for some $68 billion to go for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, and $27 billion for hurricane relief. The remainder of the funding would go toward levee repairs and flood control, among other projects.
Much of the debate focused on Iraq.
Senator Robert Byrd, a West Virginia Democrat and outspoken critic of the Iraq war, questioned the sharp rise in the cost of the conflict.
He noted that two years ago the cost of Iraq operations was averaging $4 billion a month. But this year, he said, the Congressional Research Service is estimating the cost will rise to $6.8 billion a month. "The American people ought to be asking: How on earth has the monthly cost of the war in Iraq grown by 70 percent in just two years? Isn't there any way to control the cost of the war while making sure that our troops continue to get the support that they need? The truth is that the administration is out of control when it comes to asking for emergency spending," he said.
Other lawmakers, concerned about an open-ended commitment of U.S. troops in Iraq, introduced a non-binding resolution to press the Iraqis toward a political settlement. The amendment calls on President Bush to make clear to Iraqis that the continued presence of U.S. troops in Iraq is not unconditional, and that it depends on Iraqis meeting their self-imposed deadlines for forming a unity government.
"For me, the message is that the Iraqi people have to know that the day is going to come when the American troops are not going to be in their country. They are responsible for the future of their country, and we need to keep the pressure on for a political solution," said Senator Susan Collins, a Maine Republican.
Senator Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat, is a cosponsor of the amendment. "We need to link our continued military presence to the Iraqis making the political compromises, which are essential if they are going to have a chance at defeating that insurgency and of avoiding that all-out civil war," he said.
The emergency supplemental bill is expected to be easily approved by the Senate. But it will have to be reconciled with a House-passed measure before a final bill is sent to President Bush.
The Senate bill is $15 billion over that requested by President Bush in February, and comes to the Senate floor at a time when many Republican conservatives are concerned about rising government spending and federal budget deficits.
But the size of the bill is likely to increase over the coming days, with senators expected to add amendments to fund veterans' health care, drought relief, and efforts to combat avian flu.
Some Senate conservatives hope President Bush will threaten to veto the bill over its cost.