WASHINGTON – A Senate panel is poised to approve President Bush's request for more money for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, but only after adding billions of dollars in hurricane aid and relief for drought-stricken farmers.
The moves by the Senate Appropriations Committee, which is meeting Tuesday, are expected to lift the price tag for the legislation to more than $100 billion.
Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Thad Cochran, R-Miss., is pushing to boost significantly Bush's latest request for hurricane relief. Committee Democrats are set to win almost $4 billion in election-year 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. It would boost his $19 billion request for hurricane relief by $4.6 billion.
Probably the most controversial add-on is $700 million to have the federal government purchase from CSX Transportation a Gulf Coast freight rail line in Mississippi. The line was heavily damaged by Hurricane Katrina but has already been rebuilt with about $300 million in insurance proceeds.
Moving the line is an idea that well predates Katrina. The line crosses many north-south roads and is seen as an impediment to redevelopment. CSX is expected to use the money to enter into agreements with other railroads to use their lines and to pay for upgrading track. Mississippi is eyeing using the existing line to build a new east-west highway.
The underlying 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 houses 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. The administration now acknowledges 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 veterans medical services, avian flu preparedness, border and port security, and similar programs.
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, and Dorgan has the votes to win again.
"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.
Fiscal conservatives are dismayed.
"It looks to me like it's out of control," said Budget Committee Chairman Judd Gregg, R-N.H., who also serves on the appropriations panel. "The president sends up $92 billion. It's coming to the committee at $96.7 billion, and I understand there's another $6 billion in (agriculture) and other amendments heading toward it."
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 a two-week recess.