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US Congress Continues Debate on Iraq Funding Bill - 2003-10-17

An $87 billion bill funding military needs and reconstruction in Iraq and Afghanistan is in the final hours of debate on Capitol Hill. President Bush was dealt a blow in the Republican-controlled Senate when it earlier approved an amendment to convert half of reconstruction aid for Iraq to a loan. Republicans in the House rejected similar efforts as the bill moves toward expected overwhelming approval.

President Bush and senior administration officials had lobbied hard to prevent precisely what happened in the Senate, where some key Republicans voted to turn half of the $20 billion or so for Iraqi reconstruction into a loan.

Some Democrats voted to support the president's insistence that all reconstruction aid should be in the form of a grant. But the final vote on the amendment was a narrow 51 to 47 against the White House position.

Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle called the vote a message to President Bush that Americans don't want to shoulder the burden of Iraq's reconstruction "virtually alone."

Things were different in the House. Republicans voted down a succession of Democratic amendments seeking to convert grants to loans, or reduce or delay reconstruction money.

Democrats pushed specifically for so-called "quality of life" amendments that would provide pay bonuses for American troops, and add money for bulletproof vests and other safety equipment.

Congresswoman Corrine Brown, a Florida Democrat, held up a bulletproof vest to make the point that many U.S. soldiers lack proper protection.

"Forty four thousand troops do not have this bulletproof vest that costs $1,500," she said.

In the Senate, tempers became frayed as Democrats used the final hours of debate to attack Bush administration policy on Iraq.

That produced this exchange between Ted Stevens, Republican chairman of the Senate appropriations committee, and Democrat Charles Schumer who supported a proposal to create an independent commission to investigate intelligence used by the Bush administration to justify the war in Iraq:

STEVENS: "Now what's going on here! I don't see any reason to bring the [presidentia]) campaign in oh-four [2004] to this chamber on this bill, but that is what is going on with what has been said by the senator from New York! I take great offense at that!"

SCHUMER: "I have to say as aggravated as my colleague from Alaska is with me I am with him. This was not intended to be political! I believe that our intelligence needs improvement. I think most Americans, Democrat or Republican, believe that!"

Once House and Senate bills are approved, it will be up to House and Senate negotiators to iron out the differences on the question of loans and any other issues before final legislation can go to President Bush for signature.

Lawmakers want to conclude all their work on the funding legislation before the international donors meeting on Iraq gets under way in Madrid next week.