House Bill Would Force to Baghdad to Shoulder Reconstruction Costs in Iraq

A new war spending bill proposed by House Democrats would prohibit using U.S. aid to rebuild towns or equip security forces in Iraq unless Baghdad matches every dollar spent, lawmakers said Tuesday.

The $195 billion measure funds President Bush's demands to finance military and diplomatic operations in Iraq and Afghanistan until the next president can set his or her own policy next spring.

The bill also includes a mandate that the president negotiate an agreement with Baghdad to subsidize the U.S. military's fuel costs so troops operating in Iraq aren't paying any more than Iraqi citizens are.

A recent Associated Press report revealed that troops are paying the market average of $3.23 a gallon for gasoline, diesel and jet fuel, while Baghdad subsidies put domestic consumption inside the country at about $1.36 a gallon.

Meanwhile, Iraq is looking toward a massive budget surplus this year. With the country's oil production on the rise and record-high fuel prices, Iraq is expected to reap some $70 billion in oil revenues.

"We are saying give us the same subsidies you are giving your own people," said Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., chairman of the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee.

The bill also will carry legislation costing $11 billion over 10 years to extend by up to six months unemployment insurance coverage for jobless people whose benefits have run out, said House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey, D-Wis.

After weeks of secret meetings of top congressional Democrats, Obey revealed the outline of the bill just two days before the House is slated to pass it.

Veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan would begin to receive a big boost in college aid costing $720 million through 2009 but expected to cost far more in future years.

The House bill is the latest -- and likely just as unsuccessful -- push by Democrats to challenge the Bush administration's policies in Iraq. Lacking the votes to force the administration to bring the troops home, Democrats have blamed the poor economy on the war and say that message will resonate with voters come elections this fall.

The plan also would require troops to begin to be redeployed from Iraq and set a nonbinding goal of withdrawing combat troops by December 2009 and require that any troops deployed into a combat zone would be properly trained and equipped by the Pentagon's own high standards. Murtha said the latter provision would effectively stop future deployments and end the war.

But both of these provisions are expected to fail in the Senate and be stripped from a final bill to be approved by the House this spring.

Obey said the measure provides $96.6 billion of the $100 billion requested by Bush to fund the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan through the end of September.

He said the $3.4 billion left over would be used to fund military base and hospital construction, additional food aid and cover shortfalls identified by the Bureau of the Census and the Bureau of Prisons.

The legislation also includes another $5.8 billion, as requested by Bush, to build flood protection levees around New Orleans.

On Iraq, the bill contains $66 billion requested by Bush to fund the war into the next administration.

"Whoever becomes president has a few months to get his or her act together," Obey said.

The move also lets them avoid a second war vote during the presidential elections.

Obey confirmed that the legislation is slated to advance in an unusual process in which it is broken into three separate pieces for votes in the House and Senate: war funding, anti-war policy provisions and domestic funding.

The idea is to allow anti-war Democrats to vote against the war funding -- which Republicans will provide the votes to pass -- while still ensuring the money goes out to support troops overseas. Democrats get to vote for restrictions on the war, but the provisions would never make it through the Senate to face a veto.

The Pentagon says it needs the money by Memorial Day, or else it will have to drain funds from elsewhere within its budget to cover combat costs. In information provided to lawmakers Tuesday, the military said the Army will run out of money by late July if Congress does not act -- something Democrats say won't happen.

About $3 billion of Bush's request would be devoted to reconstruction and relief programs, half of which would go toward the training and equipping mission.

The administration has been open to lawmakers' suggestions that Iraq assume more rebuilding costs, contending Baghdad is already on track to do so with regard to major infrastructure projects. But, depending on how the legislation is written, White House officials may be reluctant to restrict U.S. spending on rebuilding Iraq's military and police forces -- the linchpin in Bush's exit strategy in Iraq.

The White House did not provide immediate comment on the proposal.

As in the past, Democrats plan to include language banning permanent bases in Iraq and prohibiting torture of military detainees.

Barring any unexpected developments, the bill would bring the amount approved by Congress since Sept. 11, 2001, to fight terrorism and conduct the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to about $875 billion.