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Senate Defies Bush On Iraq Assistance Loan Provision Approved in 51 to 47 Vote
By Jonathan Weisman Washington Post Staff Writer Friday, October 17, 2003; Page A01
Defying weeks of intense White House lobbying, a narrowly divided Senate voted last night to convert half of President Bush's $20.3 billion Iraq rebuilding plan into a loan that would be forgiven if other donor nations write off the debt incurred by the ousted government of Saddam Hussein.
The 51 to 47 vote came an hour after the Republican-controlled House defeated a similar loan amendment, 226 to 200, setting up potentially difficult House-Senate negotiations next week as lawmakers rush to conclude a final spending plan for Iraq before an international donors conference next Thursday in Madrid.
The Senate and House are poised to approve today nearly all of the president's $87 billion request for the military and reconstruction efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Senate's version of the spending measure mirrors Bush's, although it contains the $10 billion loan provision. The House's version hews closely to the administration's but shaves $1.7 billion from the reconstruction fund, stripping out such items as the Iraq Zip code implementation, garbage trucks and a one-month business course that has become politically unpalatable to many Republicans.
The Senate vote was a rare defeat for Bush in the GOP-led Congress, and it came after his intensive personal involvement. It indicated the depth of misgivings about the request among lawmakers of both parties and the constituents who have flooded them with protest letters and calls. Bush has maintained that a loan would confirm Middle Eastern suspicions of U.S. motives in Iraq, but Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) said no amount of money is going to change the minds of those who believe the administration invaded for Iraq's oil.
"I don't want to give in to a great lie. You can't buy your way out of this problem," said Graham, one of the five Republican co-authors of the Senate's loan provision. "You can't take $10 billion of taxpayer money, [while] people are losing their jobs, to buy your way out of a great lie. It would be terrible if the people of this country who have sacrificed so much wound up not getting a dime back."
Bush had sternly warned Congress yesterday not to convert any part of his rebuilding plan into a loan. "The administration strongly opposes efforts to convert any portion of this assistance to a loan mechanism," the White House said in a statement. "Doing so would slow efforts to stabilize the region and to relieve pressure on our troops, raise questions about our commitment to building a democratic and self-governing Iraq, and impair our ability to encourage other nations to provide badly needed assistance without saddling Iraq with additional unsustainable debt."
That argument won the day in the House, although 18 Republicans voted for a Democratic amendment to turn half of the reconstruction aid into a loan. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) used a parliamentary tactic to prevent a GOP loan amendment from reaching a vote, then he appealed to his colleagues' patriotism.
"We will pay any price and bear any burden to advance the cause of human liberty," DeLay told lawmakers. "And after the shock and awe of major combat, the price and burden of human hope shifted from the battlefield to the town hall and the town market. And that hope cannot come in the form of a promissory note."
"It's our fight," he concluded, "and now it's our job."
But in the Senate, eight Republicans -- many of them usually reliable Bush supporters -- abandoned the president. They were Ben Nighthorse Campbell (Colo.), John Ensign (Nev.), Graham, Olympia J. Snowe (Maine), Sam Brownback (Kans.), Saxby Chambliss (Ga.), Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) and Susan Collins (Maine).
Four Democrats voted against the amendment: Zell Miller (Ga.), Maria Cantwell (Wash.), Daniel K. Inouye (Hawaii) and Joseph R. Biden Jr. (Del.).
There is little doubt that Congress will approve the $87 billion request, even if some of it becomes a loan. Democratic leaders are split, with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) saying she will vote against "an $87 billion bailout of a failed Iraq policy," while Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer (Md.) said he will vote for it.
"Failure in Iraq is not an option," Hoyer said. "And additional funding is vital to our efforts."
The ultimate outcome of the loan debate is far from assured. Rep. Fred Upton (Mich.), a moderate Republican, said the Senate's approach will have strong appeal to House members looking for leverage to force countries to forgive their loans to Iraq. But Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), an outspoken conservative, said Congress would be ceding authority to donor nations such as France and Germany, which would in effect have the power to decide whether U.S. funds are loans or grants.
House conservatives had been the original proponents of the loan approach, and House GOP leaders allowed them to express that support in a debate over a Republican-written loan measure. But House leaders then refused to allow the measure to come to a vote. Conservative Republicans took to the floor to portray Iraq as an oil-rich nation that should be required to repay the U.S. largesse, and to express the frustrations of their constituents.
"We're going to borrow this money so that we can give it to Iraq, which will be rich with oil in 10 years?" Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) asked. "That's obscene."
But Rep. Jim Kolbe (R-Ariz.) said a loan would be impractical and would slow the pace of the reconstruction that is necessary to ensure that U.S. troops can leave a peaceful Iraq. Many of the Republicans who had argued for the GOP loan amendment then voted against the Democratic version.
The House also narrowly defeated an amendment by Rep. David R. Obey (D-Wis.) that would have shifted $3.6 billion from the Iraq reconstruction fund to the U.S. military to pay for the medical and dental screening of military reservists, for family assistance centers, for pre-paid phone cards for the troops in Iraq, for the transportation of troops on rest-and-relaxation leave, for the construction of more water treatment and power plants for the deployed troops, and for the repair and replacement of damaged equipment. The amendment died, 216 to 209.
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