WASHINGTON - Republicans muscled President Bush's $87 billion plan for Iraq and Afghanistan through a Senate committee Tuesday but signaled that they may ultimately defy the White House and structure some of the aid as a loan.
The Senate Appropriations Committee approved the bill 29-0, with Democrats reluctant to oppose a bill dominated by funds for U.S. troops. But the unanimous tally belied sharp partisan divisions over $20.3 billion included for Iraqi reconstruction, and the fight on the Senate floor seems likely to last until after lawmakers return from a Columbus Day recess in mid-October.
With even GOP senators flashing signs of unease over the Iraq rebuilding money, the panel's chairman said a bipartisan compromise was being explored to provide some of the rebuilding assistance as loans that Iraq eventually would have to repay.
A compromise might be included when Congress considers the bill in coming weeks. It would envision that "part of it should be considered repayable when oil comes out of the ground" in Iraq, said Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Ted Stevens, R-Alaska.
Administration officials have opposed strongly transforming the reconstruction spending into loans. They say it would make it harder for Iraq's economy to grow and would fuel Arab arguments that the United States is interested chiefly in Iraqi oil.
The willingness of some GOP lawmakers to strike a deal, however, underscores how effectively
Democrats have turned the plan's $20.3 billion for Iraqi reconstruction into a political issue.
"We oughtn't be too fast to give away $20 billion if we can find a way not to," said Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., who is up for re-election next year.
Democrats have built their political case, in part, by arguing that with record federal deficits and a weak domestic economy, Americans should not foot the entire cost of rebuilding a country with the world's second largest oil reserves.
"The president squandered the good will of our allies after Sept. 11, and now he is asking Congress to shovel money into the hole he has dug for himself in the international community," said Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia, the Appropriations panel's top Democrat.
By a party-line 15-14 vote, the committee rejected an amendment by Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., to remove the reconstruction money from the bill. Dorgan's measure would have used Iraq's potential future oil revenue to leverage loans and other investments it could have used for rebuilding in place of the $20.3 billion.
The panel also voted 15-14 against a Byrd amendment that would have split the rebuilding funds into a separate bill. With support questionable for that portion of Bush's request, the maneuver could have dealt a fatal blow to the money.
By the same margin, the committee killed a proposal by Byrd to erase provisions giving Bush flexibility on precisely how the $20.3 billion - and other portions of the bill - would be spent. In one of the few Democratic wins, the panel accepted an amendment by Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and others creating criminal penalties for war profiteering in Iraq.
The faster the $20.3 billion is provided, the safer American soldiers there will be, and the sooner they can get home, Republicans said.
"Our troops become larger and larger targets as more and more dissidents come out into the streets as a result of living conditions," Stevens said.
The overall bill mostly rubber-stamps the request Bush announced Sept. 7.
Members of both parties are strongly behind its $65.6 billion for U.S. military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan during the government's new budget year, which begins Wednesday. Of that total, $51 billion for is for Iraq, $11 billion for Afghanistan and the rest for Pentagon efforts against terrorists elsewhere.
But eyeing next year's presidential and congressional elections, Democrats have singled out specific items in Bush's request for Iraqi reconstruction and argued that the spending drains money from U.S. needs at home. Examples include $20 million to train Iraqi entrepreneurs in "business fundamentals and concepts" with a four-week course costing $10,000 per pupil, and $82 million to start an Iraqi Coast Guard.
"As we put more money into Iraq, we take it out of our schools, our hospitals and our Social Security trust fund," said Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill.
The GOP-run House isn't expected to write its version of the bill until next week, but the politics there already are taking shape.
Democrats who were among a bipartisan group of 17 representatives who spent last weekend in Iraq told reporters Tuesday that they support the reconstruction funds and would oppose making that money a loan.