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U.S.: Congress Dithers Over Reconstruction Aid To Iraq

  • Andrew Tully

Last week, both the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate passed slightly different versions of a bill on financing reconstruction in Iraq and Afghanistan. The House measure reflected the wishes of President George W. Bush, but the Senate voted to designate half of the asked-for amount as a loan. Now, the House has voted to have its bill include the loan language, too, but it appears that the leadership in Congress will not let that happen.

Washington, 23 October 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The U.S. House of Representatives has changed its mind about a portion of a bill it passed giving President George W. Bush virtually all the $87 billion he asked for to pay for military operations and reconstruction in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Bush wants about $20 billion of that total to be a gift for rebuilding Iraq.

U.S. Congressman Dana Rohrabacher, a Republican from California, told his colleagues in the House of Representatives on 21 October that he thinks it would be fair if Iraqis, with their oil riches, repaid the United States for some of the expense of rebuilding their country.

"Why don't we permit half of this -- $10 billion -- to go in the form of a loan that can be repaid. After all, we are in debt $400 billion a year now, that's our level of deficit spending. We have to borrow that $10 billion to give it to Iraq as a gift. Why don't we let them repay it after 20 years?" Rohrabacher asked.

Shortly after Rohrabacher and other House members concluded their debate, the chamber voted 277-139 in favor of a nonbinding resolution essentially trying to change some details of the Iraq-Afghanistan spending bill they had passed the week before.

Similar legislation passed by the Senate would require Iraq to repay half of the nearly $20 billion that Bush plans to spend on reconstruction there if Iraq's creditors -- including Russia and Saudi Arabia -- do not forgive 90 percent of Iraq's debt. The House version had said the United States should donate the money outright.

Senate and House negotiators now must reconcile these two bills into one piece of legislation for Bush to sign into law. And in the 21 October vote, House members urged their negotiators working in the conference committee to accept the Senate loan language.

Among the House members voting to change the bill from grant to half-grant, half-loan were 84 members of Bush's own Republican Party. Bush has repeatedly said he opposes the idea of loans.

The president has been traveling in Asia this week, but a few hours before the vote, White House Budget Director Joshua Bolten sent a letter to congressional leaders that said Bush might veto the measure if it includes the loans because that would send the world the wrong message about U.S. commitment to Iraq's future.

Those who support the loan proposal point to Iraq's enormous potential wealth because of its oil reserves -- the second-largest in the world after Saudi Arabia. They also cite the equally enormous budget deficits that the United States is incurring because of the Iraq war in particular and the global war on terrorism in general.

It is likely, however, that the House conference-committee negotiators will not abide by the 21 October vote on the resolution when they begin work on reconciling the two versions of the bill next week. The resolution is nonbinding, and leaders of both the Senate and the House oppose the idea of loans.

And the House members who voted in favor of the loan proposal know that, according to David Boaz, the executive vice president of the Cato Institute, a private policy-research center in Washington. He specializes in constitutional and political affairs.

Boaz told RFE/RL that the vote is a classic example of the leaders of both the Senate and the House -- both of which have Republican majorities -- allowing a vote on an issue that may be popular, even though these leaders plan to kill the measure in the conference committee. "Sometimes the leadership of Congress will allow a vote on a politically popular measure, knowing that they're going to kill it behind closed doors," Boaz said. "And that may very well be what's going on here."

As a result, he said, everybody -- everybody in Congress, that is -- is happy. Legislators look good for their constituents, and the leaders get the bill they want. "You vote for a bill that's popular with your constituents in a public, recorded vote, knowing that the leadership will remove it behind the scenes. It's not the most attractive aspect of a parliamentary or congressional system, but it's been known to happen," he said.

Legislators are doubly happy because they can vote in favor of what their constituents want, and later for what their leaders want, according to Bill Frenzel, a Republican who served 20 years in the House, representing a district in Minnesota. He told RFE/RL that they are often faced with difficult questions about why a popular bill never became law.

Using this maneuver, Frenzel said, a member of Congress can easily respond to angry questions from his district about why a popular bill never became law. "[Members of Congress] will then be able to truthfully answer letters, saying, 'Well, when I had a chance to vote for it, I favored your position, but when [the bill] came back [from reconciling negotiations], the only way that we could provide for reasonable rebuilding of Iraq was in an appropriation, and so I voted for that,'" he said.

But Frenzel said such maneuvering takes its toll on a politician, and the 21 October vote is a good example of the cynicism of lawmaking. "I think there are times when it's hard to be a congressman, and sometimes you have to be on different sides of the same issue, and this looks to me like one of those occurrences," he said.