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The Not-So-Big Payback

The Bush White House has been accused of bullying Congress before, but never have its efforts at intimidation been so blatant and so, well … intimidating as some Republicans said they were last week when a group of House GOPers tried to convert part of President Bush’s $20 billion Iraq reconstruction request into loans. “If [Bush’s] eyes would have been lasers, mine would have been burned out,” said Rep. Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.), who gave up on his attempt to force the loan issue in Thursday’s House Appropriations Committee markup after meeting with Bush on Wednesday.

But while the browbeating may have worked on the 36 House GOP appropriators last week, the question this week is: Will Bush’s piercing gaze be enough to bend all 535 Members to his will as they take up the mammoth $87 billion supplemental spending bill in both chambers?

So far, the White House appears to be losing the substantive argument that adding $10 billion to $20 billion to Iraq’s $200 billion debt in the form of reconstruction loans will only further hamper the ability of the Iraqi economy to rebound. It seems it’s hard to sell that notion while simultaneously asking U.S. taxpayers suffering through a sluggish economy to shoulder a nearly $500 billion deficit this year and a national debt approaching $7 trillion.

The White House can only hope that its less substantive, but far more successful, appeal to Republicans’ partisanship (i.e., “Don’t give the Democrats a political win by supporting loans”) will convince malcontents to hold their noses and vote to give the Iraqis a $20 billion grant.

When all is said and done, the passage of grants will likely be the outcome this week in both chambers, according to senior aides. But, as is always the case on Capitol Hill, nothing is settled until the gavel comes down, and a great deal of arm-twisting seems inevitable, particularly on the Senate side.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), who initially vowed that the Senate would finish the bill by Oct. 3 before leaving for a weeklong recess, ended up punting the issue over to the House when he realized the loan issue was about to blow up in his face — much to the delight of Senate Democrats, who had been pleading for more time to exploit an issue they see as politically advantageous.

Anticipating the relative ease with which the White House could force its will on House appropriators, Frist is now hoping that the threat of Bush glowering at Senators will convince his troops to rethink their support for loans. And it’s likely Bush will be having some face-to-face meetings with a number of wavering Senators.

But he’s not going to gamble again on not having the situation firmly in hand.

“We know our bosses are working Member by Member,” said one senior Senate Republican aide of the leadership’s vigorous attempts to beat back GOP-sponsored loan proposals that could be offered by Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and others this week. “We’re making progress vote by vote.”

With a promise from Democrats that they will finish the supplemental this week, GOP Senators who have been entertaining the loan idea will have to decide soon whether to buck the White House and their leadership on an issue that they are likely to lose once the bill goes to conference.

As the aide wisely noted, “The man with veto pen rules.”

Meanwhile, Senate Democrats are unbowed and still plan to offer a number of proposals, including an amendment from Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) requiring Iraqis to repay the United States for rebuilding their country with any future oil revenues.

Said Dorgan spokesman Barry Piatt, “We’re working it hard, and if the president wants to work it hard, he should go for it. … He’s done the full-court press over here this year and lost. So who knows?”

Dorgan and other Democrats also are likely to follow House Appropriations Chairman Bill Young’s (R-Fla.) lead and attempt to strip out what they see as unnecessary and expensive reconstruction projects — such as $9 million slated to create ZIP codes in Iraq and the purchase of 40 trash trucks rumbling in at $50,000 a pop.

It’s unclear how those proposals will fare given Senate Republicans’ tepid response to the so-called “scrubbing” Young gave his bill.

Young cut out money for ZIP codes and trash trucks, among other items, to the tune of $1.7 billion, but added $1.4 billion for things such as rebuilding Afghanistan and providing body armor for U.S. troops — putting his bill only about $300 million below the president’s request.

“We’re not getting too excited about it,” said one Senate GOP leadership aide. (Young contends the president supports his version of the bill.)

Despite Young’s promise to request an open rule that would allow all manner of amendments on the floor, he expressed confidence in the House Republican leadership’s ability to beat back further attempts from either side of the aisle to seek payback to American taxpayers — and reminded that even an open rule can’t help Members if the loan proposal is ruled non-germane.

While Young is probably on solid ground in his optimism, it still appears that the White House is on thin ice with most Republicans in Congress over its handling of Iraq, and even loyal conservatives might not be so willing to play nice next time. Indeed, they’re already warning the White House that this money had better tide Iraq and Afghanistan over until the 109th Congress.

At Thursday’s House Appropriations markup, Rep. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) followed Wamp’s lead by abandoning his planned loan amendment, but not before ominously noting that House Republicans had “sent the right message to the president” by pursuing the loan question to begin with.

And Wamp hinted the Bush administration would not find GOP lawmakers so cooperative in the future: “If we come back here later and ask U.S. taxpayers for more money, we need to secure it with whatever [Iraqi] revenue is available.”

The floor show begins this morning in the Senate and on Wednesday or Thursday in the House.

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