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Bush's war budget likely to pass

/ Source: The Associated Press

Democrats are using President Bush’s request for $81.9 billion for conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan to criticize his war policies and soaring federal deficits, but congressional approval of something very much like his plan seems inevitable.

Bush sent the package to Capitol Hill on Monday. It included money for tsunami aid to battered Indian Ocean countries, new broadcasts aimed at Europe’s Muslims, and offices for the newly created director of national intelligence.

Of the total, the White House said $77 billion was directly related to the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Most of that — $74.9 billion — would go to the Defense Department, with the State Department getting most of the rest to build and staff a new embassy in Baghdad.

Bush said the additional money for the remainder of the 2005 budget year would help Iraq and Afghanistan pursue “the path of democracy and freedom.” He said the funds would help protect U.S. troops, track down terrorists and enhance Middle East peace prospects.

Democrats said the proposal did little to correct the problems surrounding the U.S. effort in Iraq, where national elections were held last month amid a relentless insurgency that has slowed reconstruction efforts.

“This supplemental request provides support for our men and women in uniform, but it provides little basis for optimism for a stable and secure Iraq,” said Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., one of the president’s most persistent war critics.

Democrats also said the request, which Bush wants to be financed through borrowing, underscores the budget’s problems.

The $2.57 trillion budget Bush sent Congress last week projected a record $427 billion deficit this year and $390 billion in red ink in 2006. While it included Bush’s latest request, the budget omitted any new war funds next year, which are considered certain to be needed.

“It’s going to get bigger,” Rep. John Spratt, D-S.C., said of the shortfall.

The new chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, Rep. Jerry Lewis, R-Calif., said he hoped to ship the bill to Bush’s desk by early April. But he added, “Congress will exercise our constitutional obligations” — code words for the likelihood that some changes will be made.

Approval would push the total spent in Iraq and Afghanistan and other efforts against terrorism beyond $300 billion, including the costs of fighting and reconstruction. It stood at about $228 billion before Bush’s latest request, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service, which writes reports for Congress.

Congress gave Bush a $25 billion down payment last summer for this year’s costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The U.S. involvement in Vietnam, which lasted more than a decade when it ended in 1975, cost $623 billion when that era’s expenditures are converted to the value of today’s dollars, according to the research service.

The request spotlighted how the growing costs of war and reconstruction have exceeded initial administration characterizations. White House officials derided former Bush economic adviser Lawrence Lindsey’s early estimate of a $100 billion to $200 billion price tag.

Some $12 billion was requested to replace or repair worn-out and damaged equipment, including $3.3 billion for extra armor for trucks and other protective gear — highlighting a sensitivity to earlier complaints by troops.

There was money for more generous death benefits for the families of slain American soldiers, to improve troops’ health coverage and bonuses for staying in the reserves. Many U.S. troops have been forced to serve prolonged periods in Iraq.

In addition, there was $5.7 billion to train Iraqi forces and $1.3 billion to train Afghan security agencies. Another $5 billion was for the Army to redesign many of its own combat brigades to make them more flexible and less reliant on other units.

Bush requested $658 million to build a new U.S. embassy in Iraq that could house a staff of 1,000, plus $717 million to staff it. He wants $4.8 million to enhance U.S.-backed broadcasting to Arabs, including new television broadcasts aimed at Muslims living in Europe, and $250 million to build offices for the director of national intelligence and for other intelligence costs.

Afghanistan would get almost $2 billion more for its own reconstruction, including money to build roads and schools, combat illegal drugs and prepare for parliamentary elections.

There was money for other U.S. allies, including $150 million for Pakistan, $300 million for Jordan and $60 million for the Ukraine. The Palestinians — engaged in a new peace effort with Israel — would get $200 million for economic development and to help them create democratic institutions.

One possible flashpoint with Congress was two $200 million funds the State Department would control to provide economic and security aid to unspecified U.S. allies.

A total of $950 million would be provided for the tsunami-damaged Indian Ocean countries, including $350 million to replenish U.S. accounts tapped earlier for initial tsunami aid.

Also requested was $242 million for aid for Sudan’s war-ravaged Darfur region.