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Senate's Bold Proposal for Iraq: Sugar Beets and Rural Schools -- in the U.S.

By Dana Milbank
Thursday, March 29, 2007

Midway through the Senate debate yesterday over the "emergency" spending bill for Iraq, Barbara Boxer rose to speak in favor -- of strawberries.

"There's a song called 'Strawberry Fields Forever,' " the California Democrat declared on the Senate floor, as an aide displayed a poster of an icy berry patch. "This is a strawberry field," Boxer continued, seeking funds for frostbitten fruit farmers. "It looks like an ice rink. The strawberries are somewhere in there; they are destroyed. I also want to show you oranges. . . . Here you can see the icicles near the avocados."

The relationship between crops and troops was lost on Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who backed an amendment that would remove spending for sugar beets and other agricultural pursuits. "I don't see how the asparagus-spinach problem helps us win in Iraq," he argued at a news conference. "This is a bill designed to help people that are getting shot at."

Oh? Immediately after this righteous plea in the Senate television studio, Graham went downstairs to the Senate floor and voted in support of an amendment to the Iraq bill directing an additional $5 billion to rural schools and counties -- right here in the U.S. of A.

It's common for lawmakers to complain that a spending bill is "loaded up like a Christmas tree" with pet projects. But the Iraq Emergency Supplemental Appropriations Act going through the Senate this week is unusual in that it is loaded up with Christmas trees.

Specifically, it includes $40 million for a Tree Assistance Program that provides help for Christmas trees and ornamental shrubs. Also in the Senate's version of the Iraq bill: $24 million for sugar beets, $3 million for Hawaiian sugar cane, $13 million for the Ewe Lamb Replacement and Retention Program, $100 million in compensation for dairy losses, $165.9 million for fisheries disaster relief, and money for numerous other "emergencies."

This offended the patriotism of a few senators, such as Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), who called on his fellow citizens to "stand up as Americans, not as spinach growers, not as milk producers, not as tree farmers."

Most of his colleagues disagreed. They voted, 73 to 24, to keep the agricultural goodies in the Iraq package -- and that doesn't count the provisions for shrimp and peanuts in the House's version of the legislation.

The Christmas-tree aspect of the Iraq bill was symptomatic of a broader lack of gravity that has attended the debate over the funding of the Iraq war. Minutes before the Senate voted Tuesday evening in favor of removing U.S. forces from Iraq -- a momentous occasion even if President Bush vetoes the plan -- only five senators were on the floor. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) asked for time to speak in the debate's closing minutes but then didn't show up.

On a previous attempt to approve a pullout from Iraq, senators sat at their desks and stood individually to vote in a solemn ceremony. But when the vote was ordered this time, Patty Murray (Wash.), the Democrats' floor leader for the debate, was spied yawning. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) let out a loud laugh. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.) playfully rotated his hand as if unable to decide whether to give a thumbs up or thumbs down.

Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) hurried into the chamber and voted against the pullout; aides caught him before he reached the door and informed him that he meant to vote the other way. When Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) arrived at the end of the vote, Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) called out "the lady of the hour!" and pumped his fist.

Solemnity took another holiday yesterday. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), the minority leader, took the floor to urge Republicans to vote for the bill even though they opposed it. "I think the sooner we can get this bill out of the Senate . . . get it down to the president for the veto, we can get serious about passing a bill that will get money to the troops," he proposed.

Harry Reid (D-Nev.), the majority leader, took umbrage at this suggestion. "We are serious about this legislation," he protested.

One man who did take the matter seriously was Chuck Hagel (Neb.), one of only two Republicans to vote for a pullout. "To hear some of my colleagues say that we should dispense with this frivolous debate because the president has threatened to veto, what a waste of our time -- well, if you logically follow that through, Mr. President, why do we need a Congress? . . . Mr. President, we tried a monarchy once. It's not suited to America."

Reid delivered a thank-you speech to Hagel on the floor yesterday that probably did little to improve Hagel's status in the Republican caucus. "When I say Chuck Hagel is a combat veteran, I mean it," Reid said, reading reports of Hagel's Vietnam War heroism. "In 1968, their armored personnel carrier hit a 500-pound mine that blew out Chuck's eardrums, set him on fire and left the whole side of his face bubbled."

But the senators could not dwell on matters of war -- Vietnam or Iraq -- for long. They had to take up an amendment from Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), who demanded to know why $100 million in security for the Democratic and Republican nominating conventions was included in the "emergency" Iraq legislation. "This isn't sudden," Coburn argued. "It's not unpredictable, and it wasn't unanticipated. There have been nominating conventions since 1832 in this country."

Coburn lost the vote. For the Senate, even an American political convention qualifies as an Iraq emergency.

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