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.
All of this unfolded against the backdrop of the Democratic primaries, when former Vermont governor Howard Dean surged in the polls on an antiwar appeal. Kerry said he would vote against Bush's request unless it was amended to roll back some of Bush's tax cuts and include other nations in sharing the financial burden of reconstruction.
In the end, House and Senate negotiators dropped the loan provision and the House and Senate overwhelmingly voted to approve the package. In the Senate, 11 Democrats, including Kerry and Edwards, voted no.
That tortured path to passage does not absolve Kerry of his responsibility to the troops or his inconsistencies, Schmidt said.
"This is a defining issue in this race because through this one issue, we are able to see John Kerry's chronic vacillations, indecision and political gamesmanship with regard to the war on terror," he said.
Before the final vote, Kerry was asked on CBS's "Face The Nation" how he would vote on the $87 billion package if his amendment to raise taxes failed.
"I don't think any United States senator is going to abandon our troops and recklessly leave Iraq to -- to whatever follows as a result of simply cutting and running. That's irresponsible," Kerry replied, a quote used often by the Bush campaign.
"John Kerry is the only member of the United State Senate who said a vote against funding would be irresponsible, then preceded to vote against it," said Christine Iverson, spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee.
But in that televised exchange, Kerry continued: "What is responsible is for the administration to do this properly now. And I am laying out the way in which the administration could unite the American people, could bring other countries to the table, and I think could give the American people a sense that they're on the right track."
Kerry campaign spokeswoman Stephanie Cutter said there was no inconsistency at all in Kerry's position.
"If he was trying to take the careful route, he would have voted for the $87 billion in the end," she said. "What he was trying to do was stand on principle, and the principle was to pay for it."
Republicans who fought Bush on the package said they still believe the president was wrong to oppose the loan package. Indeed, they said, Bush's stance could be a significant political liability. But they also said Kerry's ultimate vote against the package is fair game.
"Most Americans would have supported a loan versus grant, but most would have voted for money for the troops in the end, regardless of these side issues," Graham said. "There's no way around this. John Kerry lost on a tax vote. He could have said, 'All right, I lost,' then voted for the troops, but he didn't. I really think the Kerry-Edwards vote says a lot about the way they play politics."