Washington, Oct. 17: In an embarrassing rebuff to President Bush, the Senate yesterday approved a measure that could force Iraq to repay half the $20 billion the administration is seeking for reconstruction of the war-torn country.
The Senate vote was 51-47 despite a fierce lobbying effort by Bush and his senior lieutenants, who saw the amendment to the overall Iraqi funding bill as a direct challenge to Bush’s desire to provide the money with no strings attached. Pleading unsuccessfully for his colleagues to back the President, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, Republican, Tennessee, said the amendment “has the very real potential of complicating and, yes, even undermining what we all want to do: to successfully stabilise Iraq.”
The Senate measure would provide half the $20 billion reconstruction aid as a grant and half as a loan. The whole sum would be converted to a grant if other nations agree to help Iraq by forgiving most of the debts incurred under Saddam Hussein.
Republican leaders managed to block a similar amendment in the House last night as both chambers debated legislation that would provide most of the $87 billion Bush has requested for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan — including the reconstruction money.
But in the Senate, eight Republicans deserted the President and joined 43 Democrats to pass the loan amendment. Bush allies said they hoped the measure would be dropped from the final legislation when House and Senate negotiators meet early next week to iron out differences.
Still, the Senate vote was a rare rebuff to Bush on a major foreign policy issue. Bush has put his prestige on the line by personally lobbying wayward Republicans in an unusually intense and determined campaign to keep his aid proposal intact.
The defeat in the Senate was the latest sign of eroding public and political support for Bush’s Iraq policy. After enjoying stratospheric approval ratings earlier this year for his handling of the war, Bush is labouring to keep public opinion behind his post-war policy.
Polls have shown strong opposition to Bush’s budget request, and even Republican stalwarts have been wary of spending so much money on Iraq’s infrastructure at a time when the federal budget deficit has swollen and their constituents are feeling an economic and fiscal squeeze at home.
“It is very hard for me to go home to explain why you have to give $20 billion to a country sitting on vast oil reserves,” said Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican, South Carolina.
Still, it is a foregone conclusion that the overall funding bill will be approved in both the House and the Senate because the $67 billion it requests for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan enjoys broad bipartisan support.