House and Senate Republican leaders Thursday finalized agreement on a long-sought $94.5 billion bill to pay for the war in Iraq and deliver a much-needed infusion of relief to Louisiana and other hurricane-ravaged Gulf Coast states.
The bill won’t clear Congress for President Bush’s desk until next week, but the official submission of the deal eases Pentagon worries of a money crunch caused by weeks of delays in creating a compromise bill.
GOP leaders overcame the last snag to agreement — insistence by two Senate GOP moderates that the bill include a promise to increase future spending on education and health programs — by winning endorsement from Democratic Sens. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Daniel Inouye of Hawaii.
The bill includes $65.8 billion for military operations and maintenance in Afghanistan and Iraq; personnel and energy costs; new weapons and ammunition; and a $2 billion initiative to locate and disarm roadside bombs.
Lawmakers added funding to upgrade Abrams tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles for National Guard troops and nearly doubled the Pentagon request for new, better-armored Humvees.
The bill also contains $19.8 billion in new money for hurricane relief along the Gulf Coast, including housing aid and flood control projects for Louisiana, small business disaster loans, rebuilding federal facilities damaged by Hurricane Katrina and replenishing Federal Emergency Management Agency disaster relief coffers.
The agreement caps weeks of mostly behind-the-scenes talks on Capitol Hill over how to balance lawmakers’ hopes for additional hurricane relief with Bush’s demand that the bill stick to his original $92.2 billion request for Iraq and Afghanistan and hurricanes, with an additional $2.3 billion to combat bird flu.
The Senate-passed version of the bill had exceeded Bush’s request by more than $14 billion, adding large sums for farm disasters, fisheries aid, veterans medical care, port security and to compensate Texas for taking on evacuees of Katrina.
Most of that extra money was dropped, as was $289 million to create a fund to compensate people if they were to be injured by a pandemic flu vaccine.
The last snag involved a demand by Senate leaders to use the must-pass war funding bill to get around a House-Senate impasse over the annual budget blueprint Congress is supposed to produce each year.
The measure endorses Bush’s $873 billion “cap” on the annual appropriations bills Congress passes each year. Under Congress’ arcane budget rules, setting a cap on appropriations bills makes them much easier to pass through the Senate.
But GOP Sens. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania and Mike DeWine of Ohio sided with Democrats on a House-Senate negotiating committee to insist on $7 billion in additional money on top of Bush’s $873 billion cap for the upcoming annual spending bills. The pair refused to endorse the war spending bill without the additional promises for the future bills.
They wanted to dedicate the $7 billion to health and education programs; the White House and House GOP leaders were dead set against the idea.
“Period,” said House Majority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio.
“These are things I care very much about, education and children’s health issues,” DeWine said. But DeWine and Specter were overruled when Inouye and Landrieu signed on to the agreement.
The $19.8 billion included in the bill for hurricane relief includes:
- $5.2 billion for grants to states, with $4.2 billion expected to go to meet Louisiana’s housing recovery needs.
- $3.7 billion for federal flood control projects in the New Orleans area.
- $6 billion for the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s disaster fund. That includes $400 million for temporary housing sturdier than FEMA trailers. The funds also go towards debris removal, reimbursing state and local governments for infrastructure repairs and direct aid to individuals.
- $500 million in farm disaster aid for gulf states.
- $550 million to rebuild a veterans hospital in New Orleans.
The compromise bill includes Bush’s plan to provide 1,000 more Border Patrol agents along the Mexican border, deploy about 6,000 National Guard troops and build detention space for 4,000 illegal immigrants.
The bill also contains $4 billion in military and foreign aid for Iraq and other allies, and to combat famine in Africa and Afghanistan and support U.N. peacekeeping missions in Sudan.