WASHINGTON – The House, putting aside questions about the mission in Iraq, gave strong endorsement early Friday to a $87.5 billion (search) package to sustain U.S. military forces and rebuild the shattered nations of Iraq and Afghanistan.
"Congress stood with the president and our soldiers tonight, sending them the support they need to defend our nation and all those working to advance freedom abroad," said Rep. Roy Blunt (search), R-Mo.
The package, approved 298-121 shortly after midnight, includes nearly $65 billion for military personnel and operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, and an additional $18.6 billion for reconstruction efforts in Iraq.
The Senate (search) is expected to follow suit quickly, sending President Bush a package that closely mirrors his original request.
House-Senate negotiators worked out the final details of the package Wednesday night, eliminating a Senate provision that would have required that half of the money for Iraqi reconstruction and security forces be given as loans instead of grants.
Democrats, while saying U.S. troops must be given full financial backing, used the debate to criticize the scope of the package and the lack of congressional controls over how it will be spent.
"We are going to held accountable for this vote for a long time," said Rep. David Obey, D-Wis., top Democrat on the Appropriations Committee. Constituents "are going to be asking us about the loans, they are going to be asking us whether or not there is adequate protection for taxpayer money."
The White House had threatened to veto the bill if loans were included. It said Iraq was already too deeply in debt and didn't have a government authorized to take on new loans. It also said that any loans secured by Iraq's oil revenues would only support the arguments of war critics who said the United States was after Iraq's oil.
Supporters of the loans said U.S. taxpayers are already paying plenty for Iraq and Iraqis should have a bigger stake in their country's reconstruction. The House Democratic leader, Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, said Thursday that dropping the loans shows a "tin ear to what the American people are saying."
The loans had bipartisan support. The Republican-led Senate had voted 51-47 to convert part of the rebuilding funds into loans. The House did not include loans in its package, but it supported the concept in a 277-139 nonbinding vote.
The package worked out by House and Senate conferees cannot be modified. Most of the money in the package is to support U.S. military operations and both chambers passed their versions of the bill overwhelmingly: 303-125 in the House and 87-12 in the Senate.
The final version of the bill included $64.7 billion for military operations, just under the $65.1 billion Bush had sought. The $18.6 billion for reconstruction and security in Iraq was less than $20.3 billion requested. The bill would provide $1.2 billion for Afghanistan, compared with $800 million sought by Bush.
The bill also included a provision opposed by Bush to expand the military health insurance system known as Tricare to include members of the National Guard and Reserves who are unemployed or lack health insurance coverage. Activated reservists and Guard members also would be eligible for coverage for a longer period.
The bill also provides $500 million to the Federal Emergency Management Agency to help it deal with recent disasters, including the California wildfires and Hurricane Isabel.