For the Record
Inside the Vote to Fund War, Rebuilding
Republicans Were Among the Loudest Skeptics
By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 25, 2004; Page A05
Last fall, with much of the nation in sticker shock over the Iraq war's mounting costs, Republican lawmakers were some of the loudest skeptics of President Bush's $87 billion request to fund the fighting and reconstruction in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But what was once seen as a tough political vote for Republicans has turned into a line of concerted attack against Democratic White House hopeful John F. Kerry, whom Republicans accuse of forsaking U.S. troops by voting against the once-unpopular measure. Bush campaign spokesman Steve Schmidt, accused Kerry earlier this month of "mounting desperation to explain to Americans his vote against funding for our troops."
"There's nothing complicated about funding troops with body armor, health care and supplies," Schmidt said.
The events of last fall were quite complicated, with the final vote determined after a rare presidential veto threat and Bush's personal, often fierce, efforts to hold GOP lawmakers in line. Some Republicans in both the House and Senate pushed hard to declare at least part of the Iraq reconstruction request a loan, to be repaid through Iraqi oil sales. Democrats -- citing record budget deficits and the president's continuing push for new tax cuts during wartime -- demanded that the $87 billion be financed by a temporary increase in taxes for the wealthy.
With polls showing most Americans against the measure, Republicans at the time acknowledged that Democrats probably had the political high ground.
"From the standpoint of your party, you've raised the right issues," Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.) told Democratic senators. "From the standpoint of your country, you've raised the wrong issues."
In the end, Bush got virtually all he wanted, but it was not easy.
"I felt at the time [Bush's request] was not the best way to approach this crisis," said Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), one of the leaders of efforts to make some of the money a loan. "But we are in a crisis, and we had to move forward one way or the other."
At particular issue was the $20.3 billion that Bush wanted to rebuild Iraq. With budget deficits soaring, domestic spending tightening and job losses rising, the request was a tough sell on Capitol Hill.
"I just have a hard time going back to South Carolina and telling people who are losing their jobs that we need to give $20 billion of their money to the Iraqi people who are sitting on a sea of oil," said Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) last October.
Bush pushed wavering Republicans to oppose any efforts to convert grants to loans, but on Oct. 16, eight Senate Republicans, many of them reliable White House allies, joined most of the Democrats to convert half the Iraqi rebuilding plan into a loan.
The president had to literally stare down efforts by House Republicans to follow suit. "My God, if his eyes had been lasers, mine would have been burned out," said Rep. Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.), who intended to introduce a loan amendment but withdrew it under pressure. But in a nonbinding motion Oct. 21, 84 House Republicans joined virtually all House Democrats to vote to accept the Senate's position on loans.
Amid the GOP's intraparty tussle, Senate Democrats -- including Kerry and his running mate John Edwards (N.C.) -- pursued alternative strategies to put Republicans on the spot. Each failed.
First, they tried to divide the president's request into a bill to fund U.S. military efforts and a separate measure to finance Iraq's reconstruction. That way Democrats could vote to support the troops, while opposing the White House's approach to rebuilding. They also tried to finance the $87 billion by raising the tax rate on incomes greater than $312,000 to 38.2 percent in 2005, from the current 35 percent.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company