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Congress Expected to Grant Bush’s $87 Billion Request

By David Firestone

The New York Times -- WASHINGTON

Members of Congress said Monday that President Bush would get the $87 billion he requested for Iraq and Afghanistan, but would have to walk through a bit of fire first. Lawmakers say they expect sharp questioning of the request and a renewed debate about the effect on federal spending, taxes, and the record-setting deficit.

After the usual congressional additions and tweaks, the request will almost certainly pass, but many members predicted pressure will immediately build on nondefense programs, including the proposal to add a drug benefit to Medicare. Lawmakers noted that the amount requested in this one bill represents a fifth of all money to be spent next year on nondefense programs like education, housing, and veterans affairs, many of which are already being squeezed by a deficit that will reach $480 billion.

“It’s stunning in its size,” said Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, the ranking Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, noting the overall $166 billion to be spent on Iraq this year and next. “It’s astronomical when you compare it to the arguments we have over things like after-school programs.”

Republicans, no less skeptical, said they wanted to know why more Iraqi oil money cannot be used for reconstruction, and questioned some of the grander plans for rebuilding the country. Democrats said the request puts further tax cuts in question, and many are demanding that equal attention be paid to construction work in the United States.

“People are going to want to ask a lot of questions over here,” said Rep. Mac Thornberry of Texas, a Republican member of the Budget and Armed Services committees. “They’ll want to see a lot of details, particularly about oil revenue. But in the end, they’ll support it, mostly because there is really no alternative.”

The $20.3 billion in the package for rebuilding Iraq, only a fraction needed for the reconstruction of that country, is already the largest postwar effort by the United States since the Marshall Plan. Thornberry said that the size of the commitment could force Congress to slow down on spending elsewhere, and predicted that some members would now be far more reluctant to approve a prescription drug benefit for Medicare or other big-ticket spending proposals.

After being briefed by administration officials on Capitol Hill on Monday, one Republican official said the real cost of reconstruction would be $75 billion. After contributing $20.3 billion, the administration expects Iraqi oil revenues to supply another $12 billion, with the international community contributing the balance of $42.7 billion, the congressional official said.

“That’s a lot of change left on the table for our allies to pick up,” the official said. “If our friends don’t come through, this is going to be much more expensive than it now looks.”

Democrats, aware of the growing pressure on their own spending priorities, said staying in Iraq should not require domestic sacrifices, and promised an intense debate on the administration’s agenda. Nearly 75 Democrats in the House are co-sponsoring a bill written by Rep. Rahm Emanuel of Illinois that would require the administration to spend the same amount on rebuilding schools and hospitals in the United States as it spends in Iraq.

Although it has no chance of passage, Emanuel’s bill is designed to demonstrate to the public the choices made by the administration, and the party’s leadership plans to do the same.