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Congress Prepares for Final Negotiations on Iraq Spending Bill - 2003-10-21

In Congress, lawmakers are preparing for final negotiations on legislation to pay for U.S. military needs and reconstruction in Iraq and Afghanistan. The House and Senate have voted in favor of the $87 billion bill, but there were differences over how reconstruction money will be delivered to Iraq.

The congressional Republican leadership is describing last week's Senate vote to designate half of reconstruction money for Iraq as a loan, as a temporary problem, to be "corrected" when negotiators take the bill into "conference committee."

The House or Senate sometimes end up taking opposite positions on parts of key bills. Language can always be revised or eliminated in these final negotiations between the two chambers.

The chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, Republican Congressman Bill Young, says most Republicans still fully support President Bush's insistence that all reconstruction funds for Iraq be in the form of a grant.

"There is one thing we are not going to agree to,." he said. "The conferees will not agree to this loan provision."

Democrats made a last minute attempt to sway lawmakers to support a proposal to designate about half of the $18.6 billion in the House bill as a loan, reflecting last week's Senate vote.

"When we rubber stamp the desires of any president, we in essence do not behave like the greatest deliberative body in the world," said Wisconsin Democrat David Obey. "We behave instead like a poor imitation of the board of directors at Enron [corporation]."

After Mr. Obey spoke, the Republican-controlled House approved a Democratic-sponsored motion that House "conferees" should accept the Senate position on loans.

However, the Democratic effort is not likely to survive the conference committee which is scheduled to convene next week.

Although there has been vigorous debate on the loan versus grant issue, Democrats and Republicans have fully backed spending to support U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.

However, many lawmakers are unhappy with reports U.S. soldiers were sent to Iraq without the highest standard of bulletproof vests, and about military vehicles lacking sufficient armor.

In a hearing Tuesday, commanders of the four U.S. military services (Army, Marines, Air Force, Navy) appealed to lawmakers to ensure that soldiers in the field have the equipment they need.

Republican Congressman Hal Hefley says Congress wants to give troops all they require, but echoed concern about possible future costs.

"I don't want us to be surprised by another big supplemental [budget request], unless we have a warning about it," he said.

Admiral Michael Mullen, vice chief of naval operations, says the challenge facing all of the services is to replace what was used in Iraq and Afghanistan, and prepare for further demands in the war on terrorism.

"We have invested a lot of our time and effort into the uncertainty and unpredictability in the future, specifically with regard to the global war on terrorism, which we see potentially placing great demands on all the services," he said. "So there is a real sense of urgency for reconstituting not for what we have done, but for what we have to do in the future."

In a surprising development Tuesday, the director of the Office of Management and Budget sent a letter to House and Senate lawmakers warning that President Bush might veto the Iraq-Afghanistan bill if its final form allows any loans to Iraq.

Republicans and Democrats expressed surprise, some calling it a clumsy last-minute attempt to pressure Congress. Most lawmakers fully expect the bill to emerge from Congress next week without a loan provision.