WASHINGTON – The price tag for must-pass legislation to pay for the war in Iraq and additional hurricane relief is expected to pass $100 billion after action by a Senate panel Tuesday.
Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Thad Cochran, R-Miss., is pushing to significantly boost President Bush's latest request for hurricane relief, while committee Democrats are poised to win almost $4 billion in agriculture disaster aid.
The bill generally grants Bush's $72 billion request for military operations, intelligence gathering and foreign aid related to the ongoing Iraq and Afghanistan missions but would boost his $19 billion request for hurricane relief by $4.6 billion.
Among the add-ons is $700 million to relocate a freight rail line in Mississippi. Katrina destroyed the existing line, owned by CSX Transportation, which is located directly on the coast. The new line would be built further inland. The funding would buy rights of way; CSX would finance construction.
The bill also boosts Bush's request for $4.2 billion in community development block grants by about $1 billion. Louisiana is expected to receive the bulk of the funds, which would generally go toward rebuilding homes and apartments destroyed or damaged by storm surges and levee breaks.
With hurricane season looming, the bill also contains $2 billion to repair and rebuild levees and other flood control projects, which comes on top of $2 billion approved last year. But the administration now admits that earlier cost estimates proved too low and that almost $6 billion more will be needed.
On Iraq and Afghanistan, $67.8 billion goes to the Defense Department for operations and logistics, fuel, replacing equipment damaged by harsh conditions, supporting Iraqi forces and classified intelligence activities. More than $4 billion in foreign aid is also included, including $3.1 billion for Iraq.
The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that $320 billion has been spent on Iraq and Afghanistan since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, including $50 billion that Congress sent Bush in December.
The Senate measure drops language passed by the House to block DP World, a corporation owned by the government of Dubai, from taking over operations at six U.S. seaports. The company has vowed to sell off the its U.S. operations.
Despite public anxiety over the spiraling cost of the Iraq war and near-record budget deficits, widespread support for U.S. troops in the field guarantees the whopping bill will pass later this spring. The Senate debate is likely to expose the chamber's appetite for election-year spending on issues like veterans medical programs, avian flu preparedness and border and port security.
But there's also election-year pressure for spending on the home front. Cochran's draft bill carries a $96.7 billion cost, but numerous amendments promise to boost the tally past $100 billion.
Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., is pushing an almost $4 billion plan to assist drought-stricken farmers and give them help with spiraling energy costs. A similar plan passed the Senate in December but was killed by House conservatives.
"We can help our farmers and ranchers for the cost of just the crumbs falling off the table from our work in Iraq and Afghanistan," Dorgan said. "I think it's time that we got the job done here at home."
Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, is poised to add $2.3 billion to combat avian flu. Bush earmarked the funds in his February budget but has yet to send Congress an official request.
Bush originally requested $91 billion for the entire measure. The House passed a $92 billion version last month. The measure won't get to the Senate floor until after an upcoming two-week recess.