WASHINGTON – Congressional Republicans plan to complete a nearly $87 billion bill for Iraq and Afghanistan (search) within two weeks, hoping to strengthen President Bush's hand when donor nations meet in Spain to discuss aid for Iraq.
That timetable was bolstered Thursday when the GOP-controlled House Appropriations Committee approved the spending package by 47-14. Similar versions of the bill -- called a "supplemental" because it supplements funds already approved for next year -- are scheduled to be debated next week by the full House and Senate.
"We're going to move this supplemental quickly, with no artificial delays," the chairman of the House panel, Rep. Bill Young, R-Fla., said after the vote.
All 14 "no" votes were from Democrats. Fifteen other Democrats voted for the measure.
On Friday, L. Paul Bremer (search), the U.S. administrator in Iraq, urged Congress to approve the measure's almost $20 billion for Iraqi reconstruction to "help put Iraq on the road to complete recovery."
"If we can spend it well over the next 12 to 18 months, that will be the lion's share of what we have to do here in Iraq," he told a morning news program.
Asked how long U.S. soldiers would stay in Iraq, Bremer said that was a question for the Iraqis to answer, once a sovereign government took hold. "I don't know if they'll want to have American troops here after they're sovereign or not," he said. "My guess is they probably will."
A new study by the World Bank (search) and other international organizations puts the cost of rebuilding Iraq at about $55 billion, a U.S. official said Friday. That fits with the $50 billion to $70 billion tab estimated by the Bush administration as it seeks more international help.
A week of White House lobbying of Congress paid off as Republican advocates of using loans rather than grants for some of the spending ended up not even forcing votes on their proposals because of certain defeat.
In recent days, committee members heard personal pitches from Secretary of State Colin Powell (search), national security adviser Condoleezza Rice (search) and Bush himself that loans would slow the rebirth of Iraq's economy and sow suspicion that the United States wanted to control the country's oil.
The bill has about $65.3 billion for U.S. military expenses in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, and $21.6 billion to rebuild those two nations and aid other countries, including Liberia (search). Most of the money from both categories is for Iraq, including $18.6 billion in grants to help reconstruct the country.
Republicans argued that with U.S. allies meeting in Madrid, Spain, on Oct. 23 and 24 to discuss aiding Iraq, it made little sense for lawmakers to transform the aid into loans.
The Madrid meeting "will become a lenders' conference, not a donors' conference (search)" if the American aid package was a loan, said Rep. Jerry Lewis, R-Calif.
Loan supporters said that with record federal deficits, they want to protect taxpayers.
"My single highest priority as a member of Congress is to ensure we balance the budget," said Rep. John Culberson, R-Texas.
Though the House measure largely mirrors the proposal Bush sent Congress last month, lawmakers gave it their own imprint.
They approved one amendment requiring more detailed reporting on how the money will be spent. Another amendment requires the administration to show Congress details of no-bid contracts before they are awarded.
They also voted to, in effect, prohibit Rice from administering the funds. The presidential adviser did not need Senate confirmation for her job, and lawmakers said they want the money controlled by an official they could compel to testify to Congress, such as Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld (search).
The $18.6 billion to rebuild Iraq is nearly $1.7 billion less than the president wanted. Erased were administration proposals to purchase $50,000 garbage trucks, equip traffic police and create ZIP codes.
It includes money for upgrading health clinics, restoring water supplies, encouraging private businesses, supporting women's rights and creating a modern banking system.
The split among Democrats underscored uncertainty within the party over the legislation.
Some say the wisest course is to support robust reconstruction efforts as the best way to extricate U.S. troops. But others have focused on the spending package as a proxy for challenging Bush's overall policy in Iraq.
"We have been led into a pre-emptive war that has left us isolated from our allies ... and holding the bag financially, militarily and politically for the reconstruction of Iraq," said Rep. David Obey of Wisconsin, the panel's top Democrat and one who voted against the measure.