House Republican leaders overcame earlier concerns and decided yesterday to give President Bush most of the emergency war spending money he requested last month, including $600 million for a compound in Baghdad that will be the largest U.S. embassy in the world.
The leaders said they plan to approve all but $800 million of Bush's $81.9 billion request in emergency funding for Iraq, Afghanistan and the war on terrorism. They cut back dramatically on the foreign aid portion of the request, because they said some of the proposed spending was not for emergencies or was potentially wasteful.
The Republicans -- backing off many of their complaints about the size and vagueness of the White House's request -- agreed to fund the project that had drawn the most criticism: construction of the embassy in Iraq, which will have the largest staff of any in the world.
Leaders attributed much of their willingness to grant Bush's request to an impassioned presentation by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in the chambers of House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) late Wednesday afternoon.
In a nod to the conservatives who were most distressed about the cost of the new compound, House Appropriations Committee Chairman Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.) sliced a token $70 million from the request, leaving $592 million. The reduction would mean a slight decrease in desks and housing, aides said.
"People had been holding the embassy up as a scalp -- a symbol," Lewis said in an interview. "But I don't want the supplemental to in any way interrupt the peace process."
Lewis said Rice's presentation "caused many a head to turn."
Rep. Deborah Pryce (Ohio), chairman of the House Republican Conference, said after the Hastert meeting that the secretary of state had argued "that it's an emergency war supplemental and that emergencies come from unexpected events, good and bad."
The Republican leaders' recommendations for the emergency spending bill, totaling $81.1 billion, were issued yesterday as a draft bill that will be taken up by the Appropriations Committee on Tuesday. Final passage is expected this spring.
Lewis, who was appointed chairman of the appropriations panel by the GOP leadership in January, said he is determined to apply pressure to stem the growth of federal spending elsewhere.
The money will pay for construction of a diplomatic compound that will include housing, a cafeteria, office space and defense support facilities. The new compound will help consolidate the 1,054 trailers in Iraq that house 3,693 employees under State Department authority. Many of them are working in a former palace of Saddam Hussein, with the ballrooms divided into thousands of plywood cubicle offices.
House leaders said Rice assured them that the embassy could be built in 24 months, but that the money was needed up front to get contractors to bid because of the danger involved. The United States has promised the Iraqi government that it will vacate the palace.
The committee funded virtually all of the requests for defense but chopped the money for foreign assistance from $5.6 billion to $3 billion. Most of the trims came from reconstruction and democracy projects for Afghanistan, including a law school, courthouses and industrial parks.
Although Republicans cut what they called "feel-good" items, they left funds for police training and counternarcotics operations.
The foreign aid cuts included $400 million for two accounts that Republicans derided as "State Department walking-around money." Lawmakers said they will reconsider $200 million of that next week.
Despite such cuts, the committee kept the bottom line near Bush's initial figure by using $1 billion that had been set aside for assistance to Turkey but not spent.
When Bush delivered his supplemental budget request last month, Republicans complained in hearings and interviews that it included many expenditures that were not the result of an emergency.