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Spending bill kicks off Iraq debate

WASHINGTON – Both sides of the Capitol will be ringing with debate on the war in Iraq this week, first on its cost, then on its course – with a healthy dose of election-year politics mixed in.

The House on Tuesday passed a record-breaking $94.5 billion emergency spending bill to fund the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Gulf Coast hurricane relief, border security and avian flu preparation.

With Senate passage expected later in the week, the bill would push the cost of the Iraq war to nearly $320 billion, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service. Military and diplomatic costs in Iraq this fiscal year will have reached $101.8 billion, up from $87.3 billion in 2005, $77.3 billion in 2004 and $51 billion in 2003, the year of the invasion, congressional analysts said.

Congress delivered the dollar total that President Bush had requested in war funding. But lawmakers made several key changes, including adding $725 million to ensure that Army-tracked combat vehicles such as Abrams tanks are upgraded and available to National Guard units. They also added $480 million for newer Humvees, for a total investment of $890 million, to replace retrofitted models. The bill also would provide $2 billion to develop countermeasures to the makeshift bombs that kill many U.S. troops.

The package also includes nearly $20 billion to help the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other local, state and federal entities continue disaster recovery and relief efforts in Louisiana and Mississippi. And Congress tucked in numerous unrelated items, including $500 million in agricultural assistance; $2.3 billion to prepare for an avian flu outbreak; and $1.9 billion to bolster security along the U.S. border, including hiring 1,000 more border agents and adding 4,000 detention beds.

The cost of the war may be escalating, but don’t expect many lawmakers to stand against a measure to fund military operations.

The real debates will begin after the spending bill is on its way to Bush. On Thursday, the House will get to a long-delayed day of discussions on Iraq and the fight against terrorism, taking up a resolution to urge “continued resolve by the United States as it moves forward toward achievement of” stability in Iraq.

The Senate, as it considers its annual defense policy bill, will be having a similar discussion, thanks to an amendment by Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., calling for Bush to reach agreement with Iraq on a schedule for troop withdrawals this year.

The House debate has been brewing for months, pushed in part by a bipartisan petition to devote the House floor to a resolution requiring Bush to develop and implement a withdrawal plan. House Majority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, announced this spring that he would schedule a daylong debate on the war, but the timing is proving fortuitous: With the death of al-Qaida in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, Republican leaders think momentum is on their side.

To help spur the outcome GOP leaders want, the resolution was drafted to put the Iraq conflict firmly within the larger fight against terrorism, a war few politicians could oppose.

“The war on Iraq is a critical element in the broader war on terror,” Boehner said last week. “There is a fundamental question here that I hope becomes the issue of this debate, and that is: What do we do about terrorists?”


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