The House yesterday overwhelmingly approved an emergency war spending bill giving President Bush most, but not all, of the aid he is seeking for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and to help tsunami victims in the Indian Ocean region.
The $81.4 billion bill passed 388 to 43, a rare landslide in an otherwise bitterly divided chamber. Bush applauded the House "for its strong bipartisan support for our troops and for our strategy to win the war on terror."
Despite the bill's easy passage, many lawmakers said they were annoyed to find non-urgent items riding on the back of immediate, combat-related spending needs. Reflecting that frustration, the House stripped out $592 million for a new U.S. embassy compound in Baghdad.
The House included nearly $2 billion more for combat-related spending than Bush had requested. The Army and Marine Corps, which do most of the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, are the biggest beneficiaries of the bill, which would provide money to armor trucks and for protective body gear, night-vision devices, handheld mine detection systems, improved radios and medical supplies. Other funding would help the Army expedite its reorganization plans, including the creation of additional combat brigades.
In one of the debate's more moving moments, Rep. John P. Murtha (Pa.), the ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations defense subcommittee, recounted that he and the subcommittee chairman, Rep. C.W. Bill Young (R-Fla.), had visited military facilities. One of their findings: Death benefits were too low. The House bill would increase the maximum subsidized life insurance benefit to $400,000, up from the current $250,000, and a one-time death gratuity for combat fatalities to $100,000, up from $12,000.
"I have had 12 people killed in my district, and there is no question in my mind for the need for that to be changed," Murtha said.
Overall, the bill has $500 million less than Bush's original request, with most cuts directed at non-defense-related foreign assistance that lawmakers deemed either unworthy or not urgent. The list included $570 million in cuts to Afghanistan reconstruction projects, including the building or refurbishing of power plants, the Kabul airport, courthouses and industrial parks. Those items will be considered as part of the fiscal 2006 budget process, Appropriations Committee members said.
The Baghdad embassy took the biggest hit -- it was nixed altogether, with an amendment passing 258 to 170 to prevent the project from receiving funds under the legislation.
Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), author of the amendment, and his allies want the embassy request considered as part of the regular appropriations process, to give Congress more oversight on how the money is spent and to provide a more thorough accounting of Iraq war costs. Bush omitted Iraq-related costs from his fiscal 2005 and 2006 budgets, arguing that they are too hard to anticipate.
"We need an embassy in Iraq, but we have also known we need an embassy in Iraq," said Rep. Sue Myrick (R-N.C.), who co-sponsored the Upton amendment.
Supporters of the embassy funding said striking it could delay much-needed security improvements and jeopardize the safety of U.S. workers. Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.) recounted the U.S. embassy attacks in Lebanon, Tanzania and Kenya: "We have a moral obligation to the people that we are sending in this region to live in a situation and work where they will be protected." Appropriations Committee Chairman Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.) cited the U.S. civilians who have been killed in Iraq and noted that the $592 million in this bill was already $66 million less than Bush had sought.
Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.) said he will seek to preserve the embassy funding in the Senate's version of the supplemental spending bill, now scheduled to be considered in April.
The House bill does provide non-defense foreign aid, including $200 million in economic assistance for the West Bank and Gaza territories; $150 million in foreign military assistance for Pakistan and $100 million for Jordan; and $354 million for Afghan reconstruction projects.
Under the heading "emergency assistance," Afghanistan would receive an additional $594 million for efforts to fight narcotics and for police training, and $372 million to help dismantle the poppy industry. The House bill provides $656 million in tsunami disaster relief, $45 million less than Bush wanted. House Appropriations Committee members determined the $45 million difference to be debt relief for affected countries, not immediate aid for victims.
A wild card as the supplemental debate unfolds is the fate of an immigration measure that Republicans attached to the House bill, tightening asylum rules and setting federal standards for driver's licenses.
Sen. Larry E. Craig (R-Idaho) is considering his own immigration amendment that specifically addresses agricultural workers. Critics call it an amnesty program -- exactly the opposite direction of the House provision, setting the stage for a potential showdown when the bill goes to a House-Senate conference for the resolution of differences.