LAST WEEK President Bush invited a group of senators to the White House to discuss his request for $87 billion for reconstruction in Iraq and Afghanistan. The meeting went badly. The bipartisan group favored splitting the $20 billion for reconstruction (the other $67 billion goes to U.S. troops) into a grant and a loan, but the president wouldn't have it. He told the senators that saddling Iraq with more debt would be a terrible decision. "I'm not here to debate it," Bush told Susan Collins of Maine. When senators Olympia Snowe, also of Maine, Maria Cantwell of Washington, and others said their constituents wouldn't tolerate a grant, Bush slammed his hand against the table, saying, "This is bad policy."
Bush had intended to replay his earlier meetings with House Republicans who'd been pushing for a loan. The force of Bush's personality had convinced them that voting against the president wouldn't be in their best interest. "If [Bush's] eyes would have been lasers, mine would have been burned out," Rep. Zach Wamp told reporters. Bush's arm-twisting paid off: The House rejected an attempt to convert the reconstruction aid into a loan by a 226-200 vote.
But senators are prickly, and several at the meeting found the president's demeanor off-putting. In the end, the Senate approved the grant/ loan split by a vote of 51-47. Moderate Republican Lisa Murkowski of Alaska voted for the loan once it was clear that grant proponents were going to lose. More surprising, conservative Sam Brownback of Kansas, usually an ally of the White House, voted for the loan. Brownback, who is up for reelection next year, was at the meeting with Bush. Says one senator who was present, "The meeting with the president harmed more than it helped."
It's also relevant that the loan provision is widely expected to be eliminated before the Iraq package reaches the president's desk. Still, the Senate vote was a blow to Bush, who had fought hard for his $20 billion grant. Bush dispatched Secretary of State Colin Powell and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice to the Hill to lobby for the legislation. Joshua Bolten, Bush's OMB director, also played an important role. And although Ambassador Paul Bremer recently returned to Baghdad, he left two top aides behind in Washington to help shepherd the funds through Congress. "The president feels especially strongly about this issue," says a senior administration official. "He thinks it's dangerous to start playing games with Iraq policy at this moment."
The president's manner may have been abrasive, but he had strong arguments against a loan. Iraq already sits atop a mountain of debt, some $200 billion owed to Saudi Arabia, Germany, Kuwait, and other countries. As Brad Setser, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, points out, "It's never a good idea to send someone a bill for the gift that you picked out for them." And forcing the Iraqis to pay back reconstruction aid would only reinforce the idea that the Iraq war was a ploy to profit off that country's oil wealth.
Furthermore, the loan provision pushed through by senators like Indiana Democrat Evan Bayh and South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham included a dubious escape valve: The $10 billion loan would turn into a grant if other creditor nations forgave 90 percent of Iraq's debt. A top Senate aide says that's unlikely to happen. Besides, the provision was unwise, according to Sen. John McCain, who opposed turning the appropriation into a loan. "We now place ourselves at the largesse of our 'friends' the French," says McCain. "The United States finds itself in the position of being the world's Blanche Dubois. We'll have to depend on the kindness of strangers."
Still, Bush's rebuff by the Senate on the loan issue obscured a larger victory. Democrats had hoped they would be able to vote separately on the $67 billion for the troops and the $20 billion for reconstruction. But they didn't get the chance, and were forced to vote up or down on the entire $87 billion. The final House vote was 303-125. In the Senate, most Democrats, having secured a victory against the White House on the loan/grant issue, decided to support the overall appropriation. The Senate vote was 87-12.
Republican strategists will find plenty here to work with-especially the majority of House Democrats' voting to deny U.S. soldiers in Iraq equipment and supplies. It's a repeat of last year, when a majority of congressional Democrats voted against a new Department of Homeland Security and could be portrayed as on record "against homeland security."
What's more, many Democratic responses to Bush's $87 billion request display confusion, evasion, even paranoia. Here's House minority leader Nancy Pelosi on the legislation: "Democrats take seriously our constitutional responsibility to provide for the common defense and to protect our troops. We know the United States must succeed in restoring stability in Iraq." Yet Pelosi voted no.
Other Democrats act as if the supplemental budget request were a plot to funnel cash to Halliburton, the industrial giant of which Vice President Cheney was CEO. "I will not support a dime to protect the profits of Halliburton in Iraq," said Sen. Bob Graham of Florida. Sen. John Edwards, who supported the war against Saddam but opposed the supplemental request, ran a television ad saying "$87 billion for Iraq with no plan in sight. Billion dollar giveaways for the president's oil industry friends like Halliburton . . ."
But Halliburton really isn't at issue in the budget request. The question of whether postwar Iraq will be stabilized is at issue. And that question Democrats seem desperate to avoid.
When Democratic presidential candidate Gen. Wesley Clark was asked how he would vote on the $87 billion, he told NBC's Brian Williams, "If I've learned one thing in my nine days in politics, it's you better be careful with hypothetical questions." Clark's big selling point among Democrats is his national security expertise, but he refuses to take a position on the national security issue of the hour. When Howard Dean is asked how he would vote on the $87 billion, he responds, "I'm running for the presidency, not Congress."
There are exceptions, including presidential contenders Gephardt and Lieberman. Missouri congressman Dick Gephardt supported the $87 billion, saying, "We cannot leave Iraq like we did Afghanistan in the 1980s to become a breeding ground for terrorism and home for terrorist training camps." Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut also backed the funding, as did Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware, who's not running for president. Said Biden, "I think we have to." But they are few and far between.
At some level, the Democrats' confusion is understandable. They haven't adjusted to new political realities, like President Bush's knack for upending traditional political categories.
When Congress voted to authorize war in Iraq, Bush turned normally circumspect Republicans into progressive reformers of the Middle East, with a Kennedy-like readiness to "pay any price, bear any burden . . . to assure the survival and the success of liberty." Democrats were left arguing normally conservative positions like prudence, process, and geopolitical stability. When Congress voted to create the Department of Homeland Security, Bush converted the same Republicans who'd voted eight years earlier to dismantle three government departments into advocates of a massive government reorganization and expansion. And when Congress supported Bush's $87 billion for Iraq, frugal conservatives backed massive foreign aid, while notoriously splurge-happy Democrats became deficit hawks.
Some Democrats, like Lieberman and Gephardt, have kept their balance amid the new political categories. Others seem dangerously stuck between Iraq and a hard place.