WASHINGTON – If Democrats have their way, Senate debate this week on President Bush's $87 billion plan for U.S. operations in Iraq will boil down to garbage trucks, area codes and taxes on the rich.
With the political stakes rising for Bush and both parties, the Senate Appropriations Committee (search) plans to write its version of the bill on Tuesday, followed by full Senate debate. The House is not expected to develop its alternative for at least an additional week.
Work on the plan comes as polls show a steady slippage in Bush's popularity and in the public's confidence in his Iraq policies. GOP control of the White House and Congress are up for grabs next year and Democrats hope to use the Iraq debate to fan doubts about Bush.
The fight will be the "the defining issue for this session of Congress," said Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass.
Bush's proposal — which also has funds for Afghanistan — is dominated by $66 billion for the Pentagon that has support from Republicans and Democrats.
It is the $20.3 billion portion for rebuilding Iraq's economy and government that Democrats are calling attention to, piece by piece.
There is $164 million to improve the curriculum for training Iraq's new army. With Iraq's oil industry in shambles, there is $900 million to import petroleum products into the country believed to have the world's second largest oil reserves.
An additional $4 million is to start telephone area codes and a 911-type emergency number. There is $19 million to begin setting up wireless Internet service.
Bush wants $100 million for 2,000 sanitation trucks — at $50,000 apiece. He wants $400 million for two new prisons housing 8,000 additional prisoners, at $50,000 per bed.
"I have a lot of constituents in my state of South Dakota who live in homes that don't cost $50,000 per bedroom," said Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., testing lines that Democrats are sure to use in the debate.
Their strategy recalls a 1993 battle that dealt the newly elected President Clinton his first major legislative defeat. The Senate's then-minority Republicans shot down a Clinton $16 billion jobs bill by focusing debate on a tiny piece of it — money for midnight basketball for low-income teenagers.
"The opposition party can tear apart the details of a program, because they don't have the responsibility of passing the overall plan," said Kim Wallace, a Democratic Senate aide at the time who now works for Lehman Bros. (LEH), the investment bank.
Wary of that, growing numbers of Republicans are considering amendments to pay for Iraqi rebuilding expenditures, despite White House opposition.
Sen. Susan Collins (search), R-Maine, and others would structure the spending as a loan that Iraq would repay with future oil revenue. The Bush administration has said that idea would only worsen that country's $200 billion foreign debt and slow its economic recovery.
Some Republicans would cut other federal spending to pay the costs.
"At a time of terribly large deficits and unparalleled homeland security needs," not cutting other spending to pay for the Iraq rebuilding costs "is absolutely crazy," said Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas.
Hensarling and Rep. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., have an amendment cutting U.S. foreign aid over several years to pay for the Iraqi rebuilding.
The GOP hand-wringing underscores that Democrats say they have found a political soft spot and they intend to try to exploit.
"There are multiple problems in this laundry list, and the American people need to know about it," Johnson said in an interview.
Republicans say the rebuilding funds are not an extravagance.
"We are not in Iraq to engage in nation-building," Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said last week. "It's something they have to do for themselves."
Instead, they say, it is a crucial part of keeping Iraq from slipping into chaos and prolonging the U.S. role there.
"That's the piece that keeps us from going into occupation mode," said Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Ted Stevens, R-Alaska.
In what could be a major embarrassment for Bush and the GOP, some Republicans say there could be a close vote on an amendment by Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., paying the bill's costs by canceling some scheduled income tax cuts on the wealthiest Americans.
Bush and GOP leaders have refused to reconsider any tax reductions, arguing they are a pivotal part of the administration's plan to spark the economy.
Democrats hope that facing record federal deficits, moderate Republicans might help push Biden's proposal over the top.
Even if they lose, Democrats will be happy to get Republicans on record refusing to pay the bill's massive $87 billion price tag by rolling back tax cuts on people earning at least $360,000 annually.