By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 2, 2008
With energy prices soaring and the federal deficit approaching $400 billion, senators from both parties moved yesterday to force Iraq to shoulder more financial responsibility for its reconstruction and self-defense.
On a unanimous vote taken late Wednesday night and announced yesterday, the Senate Armed Services Committee approved legislation that would prohibit the Defense Department from funding any reconstruction or infrastructure program that costs more than $2 million.
Under the plan, Iraq also would have to pay to train and equip its security forces and provide the salaries of Sunni-dominated "Sons of Iraq" security groups. In addition, the administration would have to negotiate cost-sharing agreements for U.S.-Iraqi joint military operations, with an eye toward Iraq picking up the tab for items such as fuel.
Senators said they would move later this month to expand those provisions and bar any federal agency -- including the State Department -- from financing large-scale Iraqi rebuilding projects.
"The American taxpayers are paying for too many things . . . that the Iraqis ought to pay for out of their surplus," said Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.). "They export 2 million barrels of oil a day. That oil brings in about $120 a barrel. It is unconscionable, it is inexcusable, it makes no common sense for a country that has that kind of wealth and that kind of surplus in our banks and their banks to be sending us the tab."
Senators from both parties said the effort would save taxpayers billions of dollars over time and they hailed the committee's vote as the initial step in what may become Congress's first successful effort to force a change in White House war policy.
"This is the first significant bipartisan change in our policy toward Iraq," added Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine).
In a war that has cost well over half a trillion dollars, the savings to U.S. taxpayers are likely to be relatively modest. White House spokesman Tony Fratto said yesterday that the United States is "pretty much out of the business of very large reconstruction projects in Iraq" anyway, although just last month, the Defense Department transferred $420 million from other accounts to pay for some.
The U.S. military currently pays about $300 a month to each of the 90,000 Sons of Iraq security personnel, but officials say they hope the Iraqi government will take over the contracts by the end of the year. The original plan was for the overwhelmingly Sunni Sons of Iraq to be incorporated into the Iraqi Security Forces, but the Shiite-majority government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has resisted hiring them.
More recently, the U.S. command has said that only about 20,000 should be added to the security forces -- nearly all of them in Sunni-dominated Anbar province.
Any savings would be swamped by the war spending bill moving toward passage later this month. That measure, being drafted by House and Senate Democratic leaders, could top $200 billion.
It could include the $108 billion Bush requested for the remainder of this fiscal year, $70 billion requested for the first months of next year, and as much as $20 billion in domestic spending on veterans' education benefits, unemployment insurance extensions and other Democratic priorities.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said the House also is likely to include language that would shift some financial responsibilities to the Iraqi government.
"They have a surplus and we have a deficit," she said. "They have a windfall from the price of oil, and that price of oil is hurting our economy. We've spent a fortune on infrastructure in Iraq when we have deficits in infrastructure in our country."
Congress's actions reflect the convergence of soaring gasoline prices, an ailing economy, rising political pressure and weariness of a war that took the lives of 48 more U.S. troops last month. Democrats on the presidential campaign trail and in Congress chided Bush on the fifth anniversary of his speech aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln in which he declared the end of major combat operations in Iraq.
"Five years after George Bush declared 'mission accomplished' and John McCain told the American people that 'the end is very much in sight' in Iraq, we have lost thousands of lives, spent half a trillion dollars, and we're no safer," said Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.).
Congressional leadership aides freely admitted yesterday that efforts in the coming weeks to demand a timeline for ending the war are again going to fail. But the twin pressure of oil prices and economic worries will propel changes in funding, they said.
Senators said they had negotiated the provisions with Lt. Gen. Douglas E. Lute, the White House war coordinator, who pushed hard for a waiver that would allow funding of individual projects critical to Iraqi national security. But Collins refused to go along. Fratto declined yesterday to say whether the final language would prompt a veto.
Democratic leaders are taking a pragmatic approach to the war funding fight, but conflicts within Democratic ranks continue to delay the measure, which was supposed to come up in the House next week but is likely to be postponed again, possibly beyond Memorial Day.
Antiwar Democrats oppose efforts to add domestic spending measures to the bill because they would have to vote against them to oppose more war funding. But other Democrats want more domestic spending because they see the war bill as perhaps the only spending measure that will pass before the next president takes office.
Pelosi threw support yesterday behind a significant expansion of veterans' education benefits that would cover the cost of the most expensive state university. Unemployment benefits also are expected to be included, as are domestic programs that Bush has requested, such as funding for the 2010 Census and for federal prisons.
The House is likely to attach separate policy measures, including a timeline for the withdrawal of U.S. combat troops and a government-wide prohibition on torture.
Similar measures will be offered in the Senate, but Democrats said yesterday that they expect them to fall to Republican filibusters. Instead, they are looking toward more incremental changes.
The Armed Services bill includes prohibitions on U.S.-government contractors serving as security guards in combat zones or conducting interrogations, direct results of scandals that arose from the actions of contractors such as Blackwater Worldwide. It also would require contractors in war zones to report alleged rapes and sexual assaults. In more than two dozen cases, alleged assaults on female contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan have not been prosecuted.
Staff writer Karen DeYoung contributed to this report.