Iraq funding bill to hit Senate floor at well above amount Bush requested

WASHINGTON — A must-pass spending bill to pay for the rising costs of the war in Iraq and for additional hurricane aid for the storm-ravaged northern coast of the Gulf of Mexico Coast is debuting on the Senate floor to poor reviews from conservatives over its massive cost.

The $106.5 billion bill has ballooned by almost $15 billion over President George W. Bush’s February request, and that figure could grow as senators of both parties press amendments to add money for border security and medical care for veterans.

The White House asked the Senate on Tuesday for $2.2 billion more to repair and strengthen levees in and around New Orleans. It reduced its request for Federal Emergency Management Agency disaster funds by the same amount, a reflection of concerns over the bill’s cost.

The measure is expected to eventually pass with ease, but not before the Senate takes ample time to discuss Iraq policy, gasoline prices and lawmakers’ appetites for homestate projects.

Among the first amendments will be one by Sen. Judd Gregg and endorsed by Majority Leader Bill Frist to add about $2 billion in new border security funds.

The border security measures were to have been part of a major immigration bill that stalled in the Senate just before the Easter-Passover holiday recess.

Gregg said the money would be used on capital needs of the Border Patrol and the Coast Guard such as new planes, helicopters and ships, as well as new communications equipment.

“We need to make sure, first and foremost, that our borders are secure,” Frist told reporters Tuesday. “It will take increased resources.” Gregg would cut money for an army project to restructure combat units to help pay for the border security initiative, arguing that the army funds belong in the regular defence budget and not the emergency war bill.

Democrats are likely to offer an amendment to add to the already rapidly growing budget for veterans’ medical care.

Three senators — Democratic Sens. Carl Levin of Michigan and Jack Reed of Rhode Island, and Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine — are seeking to attach to the bill a symbolic statement on Iraq. It urges President Bush to make it clear to Iraqis that the continued presence of US troops in their country is not unconditional, and that it depends on the Iraqis meeting their self-imposed deadlines for forming a unity government.

And the issue of skyrocketing gasoline prices is sure to find its way into the debate. Sen. Bob Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, said Tuesday he would offer a plan to suspend the 18.4 cents-per-gallon gasoline tax for two months, with its cost financed by lifting tax breaks on the oil industry.

The underlying bill contains $67.6 billion for Pentagon war operations and $27.1 billion for hurricane relief, including grants to states to build and repair housing and $2.1 billion for levees and flood control projects.

To date, Congress has provided about $315 billion for the war in Iraq and other anti-terror spending since September 2001. Appropriations for the ongoing budget year alone would top $117 billion with passage of the Senate measure.

But the Senate bill also contains numerous Appropriations Committee-approved provisions that have added to its price tag, much to the disappointment of other Republicans and the White House.

The add-ons include $4 billion for farmers hit by drought, floods and high energy costs, $2.3 billion to combat the avian flu and $1.1 billion in aid for Gulf Coast fisheries.

Some conservatives hope Bush will threaten to veto the measure over its cost.

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