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Senate GOP readies $87B bill

WASHINGTON — Senate Republicans readied an $87 billion package for Iraq and Afghanistan on Monday that would give President Bush less flexibility than he wants and bar using the funds to repay Saddam Hussein’s foreign debts.

But the measure, written by Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, closely tracks most of Bush’s request. That sets the stage for a week of political fireworks focusing mostly on the $20.3 billion portion — the same amount Bush wants — for rebuilding the economy, public works and government of Iraq.

The Associated Press obtained a copy of the bill Stevens circulated to colleagues, though aides cautioned that changes were possible. Stevens hoped to push the bill through his panel on Tuesday, and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., said he wanted the full Senate to approve the legislation by week’s end.

“We are at war,” Frist said, explaining why he viewed the bill as urgent. “There’s a war against terrorism. We’re talking about security in Afghanistan and Iraq.”

Republicans and Democrats alike seemed uniformly ready to support the near $66 billion for U.S. military operations in both countries.

But some senators of both parties planned efforts to transform the $20.3 billion for reconstruction into loans Iraq would repay. And Democrats were ready to use the request as a forum for criticizing Bush’s policies in Iraq at a time when federal deficits are ballooning to record levels of $400 billion and beyond.

“This is not a token amount of money,” Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., top Democrat on the Appropriations committee. “It’s the beginning of a major commitment of resources in behalf of the American taxpayer.”

The House has yet to write its version of the legislation.

As the Republican-run Congress did last spring with an initial $79 billion package for the war, the Senate GOP bill limits Bush’s ability to control the funds without congressional input. For example, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld could shift only $2.5 billion — not the $5 billion Bush proposed — among various accounts after merely notifying lawmakers.

The Senate bill also has an explicit prohibition against using the funds “to pay any costs associated with debts incurred by the former government of Saddam Hussein.”

Administration officials have told Congress repeatedly that they oppose using any of the money to pay debts owed by Iraq’s now deposed ruler. Stevens’ decision to include the new provision highlights that issue’s sensitivity for lawmakers.

Stevens’ bill makes other minor changes as well in Bush’s proposal, adding reports that administration would have to submit to Congress and shifting some money around.

It would add $300 million for body armor and other equipment for troops, and $32 million to reimburse New York City for protecting foreign diplomats over the last two years.

In a nod to Frist’s home state of Tennessee, it mentions that the appropriations panel “strongly supports” an emergency health-care effort for children run, in part, by the Vanderbilt University Children’s Hospital.

The Senate measure would also require Rumsfeld to report to Congress on alternatives for replacing the Air Force’s aging fleet of airborne-refueling tankers. Lawmakers have been battling over a proposal to lease 100 of the aircraft from the Boeing Co., which would be more expensive in the long-term than buying some of them.


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