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Timing Crucial On Iraq Funds

With time running out in the first session of the 108th Congress and a packed schedule ahead, key lawmakers in both chambers say the Bush administration must speed up any request for additional Iraq funding if it hopes to get the money before adjournment.

While Members were home during recess, the headlines were dominated by stories of bombings and general unrest in the Middle East, and the official in charge of rebuilding Iraq, Paul Bremer, has said “tens of billions of dollars” will eventually be necessary to continue the effort.

On Capitol Hill, lawmakers believe an emergency supplemental request will be coming soon, but they have largely been kept in the dark about the White House’s long-term plans and funding requirements.

“I certainly do expect another request. I don’t think we can continue to operate [in Iraq] without it,” said Rep. Jim Kolbe (R-Ariz.), chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee on foreign operations, export financing and related programs. “If it’s not in the next two months it’s not going to be done in this session, that’s for sure.”

Kolbe recently returned from a trip to Iraq, and he said the reconstruction effort “will be out of cash by January 1st” if more money isn’t appropriated.

The White House has said it will request supplemental funding for 2004 at some point, but it has given no indication as to the timing or content of such a request, meaning it could come next year.

Asked about the issue last week at a press gaggle in Crawford, Texas, White House spokeswoman Claire Buchan replied that several administration officials have “said that we will be going to the Congress for a supplemental for the ’04 budget. We’ve made that very clear. We don’t have the numbers at this point, and until we have responsible numbers, we’re not going to go to Congress with them.”

But Kolbe said that, even if exact figures aren’t ready yet, “it seems to me from my conversations with [officials in Iraq] that we certainly know enough to make a prediction about next year. It’s in the administration’s interest to get the request up as quickly as possible.”

If the administration makes a broad request for defense-related funds, that could take longer to move on the Hill than a smaller, Iraq-only emergency request would, according to lawmakers.

Democrats are also preparing for a request, and they plan to demand that the administration be forthcoming with Congress about the state of affairs in Iraq.

“We anticipate that there will be a request for additional funds for Iraq probably within the first two weeks, maybe even in the first week,” said a House Democratic aide.

The staffer added that Democrats — and some Republicans — have complained that the administration has not provided enough detail in its past requests for military funding, and there is no reason to believe the next request will be any different.

“I think there is a growing concern about the lack of specificity in Congress,” said the aide. “But it’s hard to pound on the table too much about it when there are still troops being shot at.”

Even more so than in the House, the Iraq spending issue will almost certainly become a political piñata for Senate Democrats.

Leading the charge will be Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), ranking member of the Appropriations Committee, whose outspoken, stem-winding opposition to the war has transformed the octogenarian into a peacenik idol.

Byrd did not made any public comments last week about the new Iraq cost estimates, but he is expected to hit the Senate floor with relish this week, with one aide warning of a “speech or two or more” on the topic.

Before the latest cost estimates were disclosed, Byrd penned an op-ed for The Washington Post that excoriated the Bush administration’s handling of the post-war situation in Baghdad, calling for more realistic cost estimates and a shared international burden in the peace-keeping efforts throughout the nation.

“The administration’s reconstruction effort is costing the American people $1 billion a week. It is costing the lives of American soldiers and of civilians from many nations. Only an entirely closed mind could fail to grasp the need for a change in course,” Byrd wrote.

The danger for the White House in delaying a supplemental request is that it could get lost in a Senate agenda cluttered with appropriations bills and other issue items Republicans want to clear before departing later in the fall.

The more immediate battle in the Senate spending wars is on the always controversial Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education spending bill. That measure will be the first appropriations item taken up this week, with many amendments expected to be offered.

One Senate GOP aide said the optimistic hope is to pass that spending bill by the end of the week, but the more realistic hope is to have the massive measure passed by the middle of next week, which would allow Senate Republicans to then move to a measure reining in lawyers in class-action lawsuits.

That fight — aimed right at the financial heart of one of the most critical sources of campaign cash for Democrats, trial lawyers — would likely engender a two-day squabble over the motion to move to the bill, meaning it could be as late as Sept. 12 before that debate even begins, and the middle of the following week before it is wrapped up.

Under this timetable, Senate Republicans won’t be moving back to another appropriation until Sept. 17 or Sept. 18 — putting them only slightly ahead of the pace at passing the spending measures of last year’s Democratic-controlled Senate, which was so ridiculed by the GOP for its allegedly untimely efforts.

As of now, the Senate has passed just four spending bills — the tally will be five after Labor-HHS is finished — leaving eight bills to pass. And then there are the appropriations conferences with the House that must be handled before the spending bills are signed.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), who spent the latter part of the August recess on a fact-finding mission in Africa, has not officially backed off the timeline to approve all 13 spending bills by Oct. 1, but that deadline is not taken very seriously anymore.

One senior GOP aide suggested that a supplemental war bill would inevitably hit Congress, and that there once again appeared to be gathering momentum for an omnibus spending bill at the end of the session.

The critical functions driving that momentum, however, were the conferences on energy and prescription drugs, the aide suggested. If those two conferences wrapped up and those reports were to pass sometime in October, then the momentum would be for Members to want to get out of town, pushing for the remaining handful or so of spending bills to be piled into an omnibus bill along with the wartime supplemental.

But Democrats could prolong those end-of-session negotiations on an omnibus, using it as the vehicle to attack the Bush administration’s handling of post-war Iraq.