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Colombia Aid Package Gets House Approval

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

President Clinton’s long-delayed plan to combat drug trafficking in Colombia cleared its first major hurdle Thursday as the House approved providing $1.7 billion to help the beleaguered South American country dry up a major source of cocaine and heroin.

The aid was approved despite objections from many of Clinton’s fellow Democrats, who fear that it marks the start of a long-term, Vietnam-like commitment to a nation whose armed forces have consistently been implicated in human rights violations. The money would amount to the biggest infusion of U.S. aid to any country in Latin America since the Central American wars of the 1980s.

The bill now goes to the Senate, where its short-term prospects remain clouded. The anti-drug initiative may bog down there amid complaints that the measure has become an election-year spending spree for projects closer to home--including a new federal laboratory in Irvine. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) has described as “bloated” the House bill’s overall price tag: $13 billion, far more than double the $5.2 billion that Clinton requested.

The legislation also provides money for U.S. peacekeeping efforts in Kosovo and aid for the victims of Hurricane Floyd and other natural disasters.

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During House debate on aid to Colombia, administration allies hailed the initiative as an important component of the U.S. war on drugs.

“The [bill] we’re considering today is about our children and whether we want our children to grow up in a society free from the scourge of drugs,” said House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), one of Clinton’s strongest allies in pushing the package.

The $1.7 billion earmarked for Colombia would be spent over two years for helicopters and other counter-narcotics technology, as well as military advisors to help the Colombian military and police forces battle drug traffickers.

But it may be months before the Senate considers the issue because Lott, while supporting aid to Colombia, opposes providing it in a separate emergency bill because it attracts the type of election-year add-ons it picked up in the House. Instead, Lott wants to provide Colombian aid in the regular appropriations process, which generally stretches deep into the fall.

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Critics say that such a delay would weaken further the government of Colombian President Andres Pastrana, which has been buckling under the pressure of economic problems, guerrilla attacks, surging violence and a thriving drug trade.

“We’re really experiencing big problems which have limited the resources the Colombian government can continue to deliver not only to combat drug trafficking but also to fight social problems,” said Jaime Ruiz Llano, Pastrana’s chief of staff. “The timing [of the aid] is very, very crucial.”

The Clinton administration also argues that delaying action on the money for Kosovo peacekeeping expenses will strain the Pentagon’s budget.

The House approved the overall bill, 263 to 146. But a more precise measure of support for Clinton’s anti-drug initiative came earlier, when the House rejected, 239 to 186, an amendment to delay and possibly kill key elements of the plan. The deep division among Democrats over the policy was evident in this vote: 127 supported the amendment, 81 voted against it.

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Among California’s 28 Democratic House members, 19 broke with Clinton to back the amendment. Southern Californians doing so were Xavier Becerra, Julian C. Dixon, Lucille Roybal-Allard and Henry A. Waxman, all of Los Angeles; Lois Capps of Santa Barbara; Bob Filner of San Diego; Juanita Millender-McDonald of Carson; Loretta Sanchez of Garden Grove; and Brad Sherman of Sherman Oaks.

The other California Democrats voting for the amendment were Anna G. Eshoo of Atherton, Sam Farr of Carmel, Barbara Lee of Oakland, Zoe Lofgren of San Jose, Robert T. Matsui of Sacramento, George Miller of Martinez, Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco, Pete Stark of Hayward, Mike Thompson of St. Helena and Lynn Woolsey of Petaluma.

Among the delegation’s 24 Republicans, five supported the amendment. They were Tom Campbell of San Jose, Christopher Cox of Newport Beach, Stephen Horn of Long Beach, Dana Rohrabacher of Huntington Beach and Ed Royce of Fullerton.

Clinton has made aid for Colombia a key element of his anti-drug policy because the administration estimates that the country supplies more than 90% of the cocaine and 65% of the heroin seized in the United States. The $1.7 billion approved by the House is a big increase over the roughly $300 million in U.S. aid funneled to Colombia last year. Still, some critics argue that the amount is too little, too late to make a real dent in the vast drug trafficking problem.

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During House debate, the most vocal objections came from Democrats edgy about the human rights record of Colombian authorities. They also cautioned that ever-growing U.S. involvement in Colombia’s anti-drug efforts will amount to getting entangled in a civil war that has been decades in the making.

“This is the camel’s nose under the tent for a massive long-term commitment to a military operation,” said Rep. David R. Obey (D-Wis.). “I detest Vietnam analogies under most circumstances, but in this case there is a very real parallel.”

Other Democrats argued that U.S. money would be better spent on drug treatment and prevention at home. “If we want to reduce substance abuse in the United States, we must do that by reducing demand in the United States,” said Pelosi.

The aid package approved for Colombia exceeded the $1.3 billion sought by Clinton.

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The bill’s other provisions include:

* $2 billion to help pay for U.S. peacekeeping operations in Kosovo and $7 billion for other Pentagon expenses. That is $6.8 billion more than Clinton requested and includes $1.6 billion for unexpected increases in Pentagon fuel costs.

* $2.2 billion in aid for victims of natural disasters, especially Hurricane Floyd, which devastated North Carolina last year. The amount is double Clinton’s request.

Democrats complained that the additional money that would go to the Pentagon gives the lie to GOP claims to be guardians of fiscal austerity. Obey called the appropriation an “end run around the spending ceilings [Republicans] bragged about imposing” on the federal budget.

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Some conservative Republicans also were upset about the bill’s burgeoning price tag, especially spending for projects they did not consider emergencies. Among those singled out for criticism was $20 million requested by Clinton to begin constructing a new federal Food and Drug Administration laboratory in Irvine. The office would replace and consolidate FDA facilities in Los Angeles, San Pedro and Irvine.

Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.) complained that the building would feature “incredible opulence.” But defenders of the project said that the existing FDA lab in Los Angeles is so dilapidated it is unsafe for its employees.

The bill’s $2 billion for Kosovo peacekeeping provoked another round of debate about American policy in the Balkans, where the United States has about 6,000 troops. The administration and its allies argued that, regardless of the merits of the policy, the money is needed to replenish Pentagon accounts that have been drained for peacekeeping expenses.

In a sign of growing congressional impatience with the burden being borne by the United States, the House only narrowly defeated an amendment that would have made half of the $2 million contingent on European allies stepping up their financial contributions to expenses in the region. The provision was rejected, 219 to 200.

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