Iraq funding bill to hit Senate floor at well above Bush’s request
WASHINGTON – Border security, gasoline prices and lawmakers’ appetites for homestate projects promise to entangle an emergency Iraq-hurricane relief spending bill after it arrives on the Senate floor Tuesday.The $106.5 billion bill has ballooned by almost $15 billion over President Bush’s February request, and that figure could grow as senators of both parties press amendments to add money for border security and medical care for veterans.The White House, itself – despite its own concerns about the measure’s spiraling cost – plans to ask as early as Tuesday for another $2 billion to repair and strengthen levees in and around New Orleans.Lawmakers also are itching to get into the act. Among the first amendments will be one by Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H. and endorsed by Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., to add $2 billion in new border security funds.The border security measures were to have been part of a big immigration bill that stalled in the Senate just before the Easter-Passover holiday recess. The money would be used to hire and train more Border Patrol agents and build new detention centers for immigrants caught entering the country. Some of it also would be used to buy helicopters to patrol the U.S-Mexico border and to erect more fencing along parts of it.Gregg would cut money for an Army project to restructure combat units to help pay for the border security initiative, arguing the Army funds belong in the regular defense budget and not the emergency war bill.Democrats are likely to offer an amendment to add to the already rapidly growing budget for veterans’ medical care.And the issue of skyrocketing gasoline prices seems sure to find its way into the debate, though plans are as yet unclear.The underlying bill contains $67.6 billion for Pentagon war operations and $27.1 billion for hurricane relief, including grants to states to build and repair housing and $2.1 billion for levees and flood control projects.To date, Congress has provided about $315 billion for the war in Iraq and other anti-terror spending since September 2001. Appropriations for the ongoing budget year alone would top $117 billion with passage of the Senate measure.But the Senate bill also contains numerous Appropriations Committee-approved provisions that have added to its price tag, much to the disappointment of other Republicans and the White House.The add-ons include $4 billion for farmers hit by drought, floods and high energy costs, $2.3 billion to combat the avian flu and $1.1 billion in aid for Gulf Coast fisheries.The White House is poised to issue an official policy statement Tuesday, and some conservatives hope Bush will threaten to veto the measure over its cost.The bill is also generous to Mississippi, home to Appropriations Committee GOP Chairman Thad Cochran. Probably the most controversial provision would provide $700 million to purchase a Mississippi freight rail line and give it to the state for a new coastal highway.The rail line was heavily damaged by Hurricane Katrina but it has already been repaired at a cost of almost $300 billion in insurance proceeds. Now, critics are accusing Cochran and GOP Gov. Haley Barbour of exploiting the war and Katrina relief bill to fund a wish-list project devised long before Katrina hit.Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., has vowed to force the Senate to vote on dumping the Mississippi project, likening it to last year’s infamous “bridge to nowhere,” a $223 million project – shelved after it drew scorn from the media and the public – connecting Alaska’s lightly populated Gravina Island to Ketchikan.The bill also contains a boon for Northrop Grumman, which owns the Ingles Shipyard in Pascagoula, Miss. The yard sustained damage from Katrina and Northrop Grumman is insured for the “business disruption” costs of the hurricane. The issue is now in court.Cochran, however, added a provision to require the Navy to pay Northrop Grumman immediately, and costs could hit $500 million. Taxpayers would be repaid with proceeds from any insurance settlement, but there’s no guarantee of that.