Senate Passes $87.5-Billion Bill for Iraq, Afghanistan
The Senate on Monday gave final congressional approval to the biggest foreign aid expenditure in U.S. history, a bill that will give President Bush most of the money he wants for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
And that’s not all it will do.
While attention has focused on the support for rebuilding Iraq, the $87.5-billion bill also includes an array of provisions that underscore the breadth -- and cost -- of U.S. commitments around the world.
It provides an enormous increase in funding for reconstruction of Afghanistan, money for peacekeeping in Liberia, disaster relief for the Sudan and rewards for information leading to the capture of Osama bin Laden.
Other provisions thrust Congress deep into military management. The bill ends a Pentagon practice of charging injured soldiers for meals they get in the hospital, forces the administration to provide more health benefits to reservists and increases money for body armor for the troops in Iraq.
The bill includes $64.7 billion for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan; $18.6 billion to rebuild Iraq’s economy, government and infrastructure; and $1.2 billion for rebuilding Afghanistan. Also included at the last minute was $500 million in disaster relief to help victims of the California wildfires and Hurricane Isabel.
The Iraq reconstruction aid is down from the $20.3 billion Bush had requested, but is still the biggest one-shot foreign aid outlay Congress has ever approved -- and more money than Congress is providing this year for all other countries combined.
The bill provides almost everything Bush had sought to support Iraq -- and omits the provision he found most objectionable, which would have required Iraq to repay up to half the reconstruction aid. Having wrested that provision from the bill over strong objections from Congress, including many fellow Republicans, Bush has shouldered more clearly than ever the responsibility for the outcome of U.S. policy in Iraq.
In a statement released from his ranch near Crawford, Texas, Bush praised Congress “for providing vital funds to support our mission and our troops.... These resources, coupled with the growing assistance of international donors, will provide essential support to make Iraq more secure and to help the Iraqi people transition to self-government. The funds will also enable us to continue our efforts to help Afghanistan become a peaceful, democratic, and prosperous nation that contributes to regional stability.”
Although Congress hewed to Bush’s wishes on Iraq, lawmakers did him one better in Afghanistan, the other big front in the administration’s anti-terrorism campaign. The $1.2 billion included for rebuilding Afghanistan is 50% more than the $800 million Bush had requested, an increase that reflects some lawmakers’ frustration with the pace of the reconstruction effort there and a recent increase in terrorist activity.
John Scofield, spokesman for the GOP majority on the House Appropriations Committee, said the increase reflected a realization that “a little bit can go a long way” in a country as poor as Afghanistan. “By completing a road, you can make a substantial difference in the lives of people for relatively little money,” he said.
Indeed, most of the increase was channeled to projects most likely to have a quick impact on Afghans’ quality of life -- things such as road building, electricity generation and school improvements.
Other foreign aid increases included $245 million for peacekeeping and disaster assistance in Liberia, where a protracted civil war has left approximately 800,000 refugees. The bill also includes $20 million in famine relief for the Sudan, which also has been riven by civil war.
Closer to home, the bill includes several provisions that reflect Congress’ interest in improving the lot of U.S. soldiers.
It includes money for more body armor, electronic radio jammers, armored vehicles and other equipment that military leaders had said was needed but that Bush had not sought.
The bill also provides new health-care benefits for members of the National Guard and Reserves if they are unemployed or have no other insurance coverage when they return from active duty.
It reverses the Pentagon’s hospital meal policy, which outraged many lawmakers when they learned that injured troops were, in effect, being charged $8.10 a day for meals while they were in the hospital. The policy had been instituted to recoup the subsistence allowance included in military paychecks to cover meals -- money patients do not use while in the hospital. But lawmakers saw it as an insult to troops who have put their lives at risk for the country.
“We should be honoring and thanking those in uniform for their service to the cause of peace and freedom, not billing them for their food,” said House Appropriations Committee Chairman C.W. “Bill” Young (R-Fla.).
The final Senate vote on the Iraq funding bill was spectacularly anticlimactic. After weeks of impassioned debate, high political anxiety and White House arm-twisting, the Senate approved the measure without even taking a formal roll call.
Leadership aides said it was passed by voice vote because the outcome was a foregone conclusion. But that allowed members of both parties to avoid taking a recorded stand on a bill about which many were ambivalent. While support for the military funding was broad and bipartisan, the reconstruction funding was far more controversial and unpopular back home.
Critics of the bill used the final hours of debate to spotlight Sunday’s downing of a Chinook helicopter west of Baghdad as a symptom of a broader failure of Bush’s postwar Iraq policy.
Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) said one victim of the crash, which killed 16 soldiers, was a California woman.
“This is what is happening in Iraq,” Boxer said after reading the names of all 73 Californians who have died in Iraq. “It wasn’t supposed to be thus. They told us we would be welcomed as liberators.”
But the president’s allies said the funding bill was testament to U.S. determination not to be swayed by such attacks. “We will not leave the Iraqi people in chaos,” said Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), “and we will not create a vacuum for terrorist groups to fill.”