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D-Day For War Funding

Despite rising criticism about President Bush's handling of Iraq, Congress is on the verge of approving an $87.5 billion package for military and reconstruction costs in Iraq and Afghanistan that largely follows the White House's request.

Lawmakers from the Senate and House of Representatives worked out final details late Wednesday, meeting Mr. Bush's demand that none of the Iraqi reconstruction money be provided as loans. The House could vote on the bill as soon as Thursday and the Senate is likely to follow shortly afterward. It then would go to the president for his signature.

Lawmakers have been increasingly uneasy about the rising human toll and financial costs of U.S. involvement in Iraq. They have questioned whether the Bush administration has done enough to win international assistance and how long U.S. troops will have to remain there.

But there was little debate about the bulk of Mr. Bush's proposal, $65.1 billion for U.S. military expenses. The House-Senate conferees ended up supporting almost all of it, $64.7 billion.

Mr. Bush's $20.3 billion request for Iraqi reconstruction and its security forces received greater scrutiny. That total had been cut by both the House and the Senate, and the conferees ended up approving $18.4 billion. They also approved $1.2 billion for Afghanistan reconstruction, compared with the $800 million sought by Mr. Bush.

The loan issue was the most divisive item. A Senate amendment, passed with bipartisan support, would have required Iraq to pay back about half of the $18.4 billion.

But with Mr. Bush threatening a veto, Senate conferees voted 16-13 not to insist on their loan amendment with their House counterparts.

The president and congressional Republican leaders argued that Iraq already was too deeply in debt to borrow more money and that there was no Iraqi government with the authority to take on new loans.

Sen. Pete Domenici, a New Mexico Republican, said the grants were needed to quickly improve conditions in Iraq and get U.S. troops home.

"America will be recompensed 50 times over if this thing gets ended and they have a strong country," he said.

Loan supporters said U.S. taxpayers already were spending plenty on Iraq and that the country's vast oil reserves should enable it to pay back some of the money eventually. Under the Senate bill, Iraq would not have had to repay the loan if other countries forgave 90 percent of the debt Iraq ran up under toppled leader Saddam Hussein.

Rep. David Obey of Wisconsin, the House Appropriations Committee's top Democrat, noted that much of the new aid pledged by other nations at an international donors conference last week was made as loans.

Of the $13 billion pledged by countries other than the United States at last week's conference, roughly $9 billion was in the form of loans.

"It seems to me that we're asking the U.S. taxpayers to be Uncle Sucker instead of Uncle Sam," he said.

The World Bank has estimated that Iraqi reconstruction will cost about $56 billion. The gap between that figure and the $33 billion the U.S. and other countries have pledged will be made up by oil revenues, U.S. officials have said.

On other issues, the conferees agreed to provide $60 million for programs to strengthen women's rights in Afghanistan, $200 million for Liberia, $100 million for Jordan and $20 million for Sudan.

Republicans defeated a Democratic proposal that would have required Senate confirmation for Mr. Bush's civilian administrator in Iraq, the position held by L. Paul Bremer.

Prior to the war, the White House refused to estimate its cost. Then-White House budget director Mitch Daniels guessed $50 to $60 billion in a newspaper interview last fall. Former White House economic adviser Larry Lindsey put the price tag between $100 billion and $200 billion.

In April, Congress passed a supplemental request approving $79 billion for Iraq and security operations elsewhere.