A bill exceeding by more than $15 billion President Bush ‘s request for the war in Iraq and new hurricane aid could grow even larger, much to the dismay of GOP conservatives hoping to improve their record on spending.
Farmers suffering from drought, storms and high energy costs got $4 billion in aid, while $594 million would be sprinkled across 30 states to repair highways damaged by earlier disasters but put off after aid was focused on the Gulf Coast.
The extras are sure to provoke a reaction from GOP conservatives already complaining about their party‘s free-spending ways. But the temptation to use the must-pass bill containing $67.8 billion for the Pentagon ‘s mission in Iraq — and some $27 billion in additional hurricane relief along the Gulf Coast — as a locomotive to drive even more spending proved too irresistible for senators to pass up.
That‘s still not enough for Gulf Coast senators like Mary Landrieu, D-La., who marched from the Senate Appropriations Committee vote to the Senate Press Gallery to demand an additional $5 billion-plus to reflect new Army Corps of Engineers estimates of what will be needed for Louisiana levees.
Senators piled the extra money into the bill on a series of voice votes — at a pace of almost $100 million per minute of debate — with high-ranking Republicans such as Majority Whip Mitch McConnell of Kentucky sitting by in silence.
_$4 billion for farmers hit by drought, floods and high energy costs. Top supporters were Sens. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., and Conrad Burns, R-Mont. Burns faces a difficult re-election battle.
_$1.1 billion for v, , ), R-Ala., includes $100 million to rehabilitate damaged oyster and shrimp beds.
Senate Budget Committee Chairman Judd Gregg, R-N.H., cast the only “nay” vote, in absentia. Even before the $10 billion in add-ons, Gregg said the $96.7 billion version drafted by Appropriations Chairman Thad Cochran, R-Miss., had “ballooned out of control.”
The White House supports the overall bill, but budget office spokesman Scott Milburn said, “The Senate committee‘s funding level is significantly higher than the president‘s request, and that‘s a cause for serious concern.”
The driving force behind the measure is the need to provide funding for the rising costs of the U.S. missions in Iraq and Afghanistan , and that makes it a tempting target for senators‘ pet projects.
On Iraq and Afghanistan, $67.8 billion goes to the Defense Department for operations and logistics, fuel, replacing equipment lost in battle or damaged by harsh conditions, supporting Iraqi forces and classified intelligence activities. More than $4 billion in foreign aid is also included, including $3.1 billion for Iraq.
The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that $320 billion has been spent on Iraq and Afghanistan since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, including $50 billion that Congress sent Bush in December.
For hurricane relief, the underlying bill also boosts Bush‘s request for $4.2 billion in community development block grants by about $1 billion. Louisiana is expected to receive the bulk of the money, which would generally go toward rebuilding houses and apartments destroyed or damaged by storm surges and levee breaks.
With hurricane season looming, the bill also contains $2 billion to repair and rebuild levees and other flood-control projects, which comes on top of $2 billion approved last year. That‘s $600 million more than requested by Bush but far short of the $5.9 billion the Army Corps of Engineers says is needed on top of the Bush request.
Meanwhile, Texas Republican Kay Bailey Hutchison obtained $350 million to help school districts defray the costs of educating students displaced by the storms. About 38,000 Katrina victims are being taught in Texas schools.
The bill heads to the Senate floor the week of April 24. Contentious talks with the White House and the conservative-driven House promise to considerably shrink the bill before final approval in May.