WASHINGTON - Congress approved $1.3 billion in aid for Colombia yesterday, ensuring that 60 U.S. military helicopters and hundreds of U.S. troops will assist Bogota's effort to root out cocaine and heroin production from the Andean jungle.
The Senate approved the package in a voice vote as part of an $11.2 billion emergency spending bill that also furnished $2 billion to repay the Pentagon for spending on peacekeeping in Kosovo and more than $1 billion to help victims of Hurricane Floyd in the Southeast and wildfires in the West.
The House voted for an identical measure Thursday, and President Clinton has said he will sign the bill into law.
The bill did not include a disputed provision to allow the sale of food to Cuba and other repressive regimes. That measure ran into new trouble as Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott vowed to block both a House version and a more liberal Senate bill.
"I oppose both, and if I can find a way to kill them, I will," Lott said.
The Colombia assistance, requested by the administration last summer in the hope that it could be distributed late last year, was delayed by procedural snags in Congress along with concerns that it would finance human rights violations and involve the United States too deeply in another nation's affairs.
In a comparison that administration officials reject, some in Congress have likened the Colombia foray to the early stages of U.S. involvement in Vietnam and suggested that it, too, could escalate into a costly and bloody jungle conflict.
"I think that is a possibility," said Tom Daschle, the South Dakota Democrat who is Senate minority leader. "And we have to be concerned about it."
But reservations about the risks of Colombian aid ultimately gave way to concern over the rising flood of illegal Colombian drugs that U.S. officials say has been hitting the streets of American cities.
"This is affecting us in America," said Lott, a Mississippi Republican.
"This is not some distant place. This is not Kosovo. This is in our hemisphere. This is affecting our children. This matters," he said.
While crackdowns by governments in Peru and Bolivia have reduced the flow of heroin and cocaine from those countries, a spurt of production in Colombia has ensured that the total supply of illegal drugs entering the United States remains virtually unchanged, law enforcement authorities say.
One factor contributing to Colombia's output is a bitter civil war that has given vast swaths of countryside to leftist guerrillas and reduced Bogota's ability to fight the drug makers. As much as 80 percent of the cocaine sold in the United States comes from Colombia, according to law enforcement agencies.
U.S. officials hope that the fruits of yesterday's bill - 18 Blackhawk and 42 Huey helicopters and up to 500 military advisers - will go a long way toward crippling the Colombian drug industry.
The helicopters will transport specially trained Colombian troops to the drug-growing regions on the east slope of the Andes Mountains. U.S. military personnel associated with the aid will train pilots and mechanics but are prohibited from participating in such missions.
"This is a landmark vote, striking the drug war at ground zero," said Georgia Republican Sen. Paul Coverdell.
Even many legislators, such as Daschle, who had concerns about the Colombia aid ended up favoring it.
"I don't think we have a choice here," Daschle said. "We will lose Colombia. It will be gone if we don't do something soon."
Administration officials stressed that the measure strictly limits U.S. participation in Colombia and will prevent deeper involvement.
No more than 500 U.S. military personnel are allowed to be associated with the anti-drug mission. Currently about 190 Defense Department officials are in Colombia, nearly half of them affiliated with the U.S. Embassy in Bogota.
Five hundred "was the maximum number of personnel we could ever conceive of being in Colombia at any one time" said one Pentagon official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
"On average, you're probably talking about a couple hundred" Americans who will work on the mission at any given time, he said.
A spokeswoman for Luis Alberto Moreno, Colombian ambassador to Washington, said he would have no comment yesterday.
Although the bill provides $122 million for the promotion of human rights and judicial reform in Colombia, humanitarian groups expressed disappointment that it gives the U.S. president the power to bypass human rights safeguards.
Paramilitary groups with links to the Colombian army have been accused of numerous civilian murders and other atrocities.
Yesterday's measure calls for the suspension of U.S. aid if the State Department fails to certify that Colombia's military is respecting human rights, but it also gives the president power to waive the suspension if he deems it in the national interest to do so.
"It's strong language with a loophole," said Andrew Miller, a Latin American specialist with Amnesty International in Washington.
Without stronger pressure from Washington, he added, "this funding could essentially be a green light for the Colombian military to continue doing what it's been doing for a long time, which is violating human rights."
The type of helicopters going to Colombia was another point of contention that wasn't resolved until this week. The administration had asked for 30 Blackhawks, arguing that the large, hardened choppers are more suitable for the mission than lighter, cheaper Hueys.
Aircraft carrying troops into the drug-growing zones would probably come under fire, Pentagon officials argued, saying that the heavily armored Blackhawks would have a better chance of getting through and protecting Colombian soldiers.
The initial Senate bill contained 60 Hueys and no Blackhawks. Senators argued that the Hueys would save money, and legislators from Texas - home of Bell Textron, which makes the Huey-also pushed for its inclusion. The final bill provided for a mixture of the two types.
The Blackhawk is made by Sikorsky Aircraft Corp., a Connecticut company.
"Privately we're not crazy about this," said the Pentagon official, noting that any savings gained from buying Hueys will largely be lost through having to train two sets of crews and mechanics instead of one. "This is not what we've requested, but we've got to make it work now."