WASHINGTON - As President Bush formally asked Congress yesterday for $87 billion in emergency money to secure and rebuild Iraq and Afghanistan, Democrats stepped up their criticism, with some calling for the Bush tax cuts to be scaled back to pay for the measure.
Congress is all but certain to approve the spending measure - the second installment for the war in Iraq, after a $79 billion infusion in March. But Democrats are proposing strict conditions and hoping to force politically difficult votes as the price of approving it. Some Republicans, too, are vowing to scrutinize the president's proposal.
"We will be asking some tough questions of the administration and will expect detailed justifications for these expenditures," said Rep. C.W. Bill Young, the Florida Republican who chairs the Appropriations Committee.
The public scrutiny of the money could also draw more attention to accusations that the administration failed to anticipate the magnitude of the post-war difficulties in Iraq.
Lawmakers in both parties seem increasingly uncomfortable with the size of the spending request, in light of a deficit for 2004 that is projected to reach a record-high $480 billion.
House Republican leaders sought to allay such concerns and to defend Bush, saying no price was too high for winning a war on terrorism.
"The president's critics will spew their shrill rhetoric anew, but we understand we have a war to win," said Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas. "Security never goes on sale."
Many Democrats, noting the worsening deficit, have said for months that Congress should undo some or all of the nearly $2 billion in tax cuts that Bush has successfully pushed for.
But now, demands to reassess the administration's domestic priorities seem to have gained momentum as lawmakers and the public have digested just how much the war in Iraq and the aftermath are costing. Polls show the measure's price tag is too high for a majority of Americans to swallow.
Now, some conservative Republicans are rethinking their support for a $400 billion measure to add a prescription drug benefit to Medicare. And some GOP fiscal conservatives are joining Democrats in questioning the wisdom of sticking with all of Bush's tax cuts.
Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, the senior Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, said he would try to ensure that the bill was paid for by taking an $87 billion bite out of tax cuts for the top individual income tax bracket. The average income in this bracket, which applies to those earning $311,950 or more, is about $1 million.
Still, Biden's proposal faces long odds in a Republican-led Congress that has shown a big appetite for tax cuts even in the face of growing deficits. White House officials and Republican congressional leaders dismissed Biden's proposal out of hand yesterday, saying Congress should not raise taxes in the midst of an economic recovery.
Biden's bill, though, is one more in a string of red flags Democrats have raised that signal they intend to make Bush's tax cuts and the rest of his domestic agenda issues in the debate over the second war-spending request this year.
The administration, they argue, should pay for it by rolling back tax cuts for the rich and not by underfunding social programs.
Some centrist Democrats who have generally supported tax cuts, including Bush's, are rethinking their positions.
Rep. Harold E. Ford Jr. of Tennessee said Bush's latest request for Iraq "will not have my vote unless they're willing to make changes in his tax policy."
"I think that's the only fair way to do it," he added. "All the president wants to do is put domestic spending on the table."
A handful of moderate Republicans concerned about deficits might join Biden's effort.
"We've got to pay for these bills that are coming in," said Sen. Lincoln Chafee, a Rhode Island Republican who said he supports Biden's proposal.
"The dam just seems to have broken on the deficits," Chafee said. "There's a 'what's the difference' attitude, but it's our job in Congress to look out for that and be responsible."
Briefing reporters, a senior administration official said that Bush "is more than meeting his domestic priorities" and that the spending measure would benefit the country as a whole.
"These funds are necessary to win the war on terror and to support our troops, and that's for Americans," the official said on condition of anonymity.
Bush's spending proposal requests $65.6 billion in military funding: $51 billion for Iraq and about $15 billion for Afghanistan. It asks for $20.3 billion for rebuilding Iraq, including $5.1 billion for security and $14.9 billion for basic electricity, water and sewer services, and the repair of Iraq's oil infrastructure.
Some Democrats want separate votes on the military and the reconstruction packages, hoping to separate their support for U.S. troops from their deep skepticism about how taxpayer money is being spent in Iraq.
"We support our military with everything we've got," said Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat who leads the Congressional Black Caucus. "It is a bit unfair, I think, when you put everything in one pot, and then if somebody were to vote against the bill, you say they're against the military."
Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, a Connecticut Democrat, called for the money to be tied to passage of a United Nations resolution that would place responsibility for rebuilding Iraq on the international community.
"I do not believe we can or should continue to give the administration a blank check with respect to the reconstruction monies," Dodd said.