WASHINGTON - A Congress increasingly skeptical about President Bush's strategy in Iraq is set to scrutinize his request for $87 billion in emergency money to fund the U.S. effort there and in Afghanistan, but it is expected to approve the funds overwhelmingly.
The day after the president unveiled his request in a prime-time address, lawmakers in both parties cheered his stated commitment to work with the international community to secure and rebuild Iraq.
But with American casualties mounting by the day and no clear end in sight to U.S. involvement, many Democrats are questioning whether Bush has a full-fledged plan for reversing what they characterize as a failed policy.
And the cost - on top of $79 billion that Congress provided earlier this year and a projected 2004 deficit approaching $500 billion - is alarming Republicans and Democrats alike.
Still, with U.S. troops in the field, Congress is all but certain to approve the funding.
The top Republicans in charge of spending measures, Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska and Rep. C.W. Bill Young of Florida, said yesterday that they would move Bush's request quickly.
But Republicans and Democrats signaled that the administration might face a tougher sell than it has with any defense-related funding request since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
"I think they'll have to be more specific this time," said Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona, the chairman of the Republican Policy Committee. "Members are a little more skeptical."
Rep. Christopher Shays, a Connecticut Republican, said Congress has been "a little too docile" so far in giving Bush the benefit of the doubt regarding strategy and funding requests.
"We need to be very clear now as to what our obligations are going to be, so we can articulate it to our constituents," he said.
"This will be the first military request on Capitol Hill since 9/11 that will be met with more scrutiny and in some respects more hesitation," said Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana, a conservative Republican. "I have 500 billion reasons [the size of the deficit] why it will be met with more skepticism."
Most Republicans rallied behind Bush yesterday, saluting him for reaching out to the international community and for preparing the American public for what could be a long and costly mission.
Sen. Richard G. Lugar of Indiana, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, said Bush had shown "courageous leadership." Sen. John W. Warner of Virginia, chairman of the Armed Services panel, said Bush was "right on target," calling the U.S. mission in Iraq "the most important thing to happen to the Middle East in 50 years."
Democrats said the speech, and the huge funding request, were long-overdue admissions by Bush that he failed to plan adequately for a chaotic and dangerous post-war period, and misled Americans about the depth of the challenges U.S. forces would find in Iraq.
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat who has been a leading critic of Bush's Iraq policy, said he will try to condition any new funding on a full report about the total cost of military and reconstruction activities in Iraq, a schedule for rebuilding the nation, and a long-term exit strategy for U.S. troops.
Bush is asking for $66 billion in military spending - $51 billion of it for Iraq - and $21 billion for reconstruction, which includes $800 million for Afghanistan.
Democrats are questioning the reconstruction funding in light of what they regard as Bush's neglect of domestic priorities such as education and health care and his promotion of permanent tax cuts.
Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, the Democratic leader, said Bush should tell the public "how this spending will affect our ability to address the unmet needs in our own country."
Democrats who have long argued that Bush should seek a more international presence in Iraq admonished him yesterday to follow through on the commitment he made Sunday.
"I hope this reflects a sea change in his thinking about the need for the international community to participate, and his willingness to actually engage in some serious hard negotiations to get this done," said Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, the senior Democrat on the Foreign Relations panel.
A senior administration official told reporters yesterday that although the increased spending would cause the deficit to grow, the administration would not propose any spending cuts or tax increases to cover the added costs.
The $20 billion that would be spent on Iraqi reconstruction represents just a portion of the $50 billion to $75 billion required, according to the White House. Officials said they hoped foreign governments and eventual Iraqi oil revenues would make up the difference.
Key reconstruction priorities are Iraq's electrical and water systems, which U.S. officials see as crucial to reviving the Iraqi economy so it can generate its own revenue to begin meeting the country's needs.
In a conference call with reporters, the officials said they hadn't anticipated the level of decay that exists in Iraq's infrastructure and blamed Saddam Hussein's regime for failing to make badly needed upgrades.
Although the administration insists no more American troops are needed, military officials are counting on an infusion of 10,000 to 15,000 foreign troops by this fall, joining soldiers from Britain, Poland and other nations already there.
That new foreign division would replace the Army's 101st Airborne Division beginning in February. It would take several months to train and organize the troops and dispatch them to Iraq, officials said.
The Army chief of staff, Gen. John Keane, told reporters recently that if those foreign troops don't become available, "some time in the fall then we would have to use, obviously, U.S. forces, either active or Reserve, to do it."
Meanwhile, the British Defense Ministry said yesterday that it was sending 1,200 more troops to Iraq and might send additional reinforcements in the future to help improve security and rebuild the country.
Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon said two battalions, plus specialized personnel and equipment, were needed immediately in southern Iraq, in addition to the 11,000 British troops in the country.
Winning greater financial and troop support from foreign governments depends heavily on whether the United Nations Security Council can reach agreement on a new resolution that would broaden international involvement in Iraq, creating a multinational force and giving it a U.N. mandate.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan has called a meeting Saturday in Geneva of Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and the foreign ministers of the other four nations that hold a Security Council veto - France, Russia, Britain and China - in a bid to hammer out a deal.
The key sticking point in negotiations is the amount of control U.S. occupation authorities retain over the development of a new Iraqi government. France, Russia and Germany, which currently holds a seat on the council, want the United States to surrender some of its control to the United Nations, which presided over the formation of postwar governments in Afghanistan, Kosovo and East Timor.
Such a shift would weaken the role of the American administrator in Iraq, L. Paul Bremer.
The Bush administration insists on keeping Bremer in a top role. "Bremer is the man in charge and will be," a State Department official said yesterday. France is expected to propose changes in the U.S. proposal as early as today.
Sun staff writer Tom Bowman contributed to this article.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun