Iraq Spending Sparks Calls for Debate

The Senate is considering a $108 billion supplemental spending bill that includes record amounts for fighting the war in Iraq. Some lawmakers are insisting that, as long as the money is going to be spent, the least they can do is debate the wisdom of the war.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

JOHN YDSTIE, host:

Steve Inskeep is on assignment in Baghdad. I'm John Ydstie. The Senate today is expected to pass an emergency spending bill. The $108 billion supplemental appropriations measure would be financed through deficit spending. It's for everything from hurricane relief to avian flu preparedness. But the biggest chunk, nearly $70 billion, goes for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

As NPR's David Welna reports, despite lengthy Senate debate on the bill, that war spending has barely been mentioned.

DAVID WELNA reporting:

When he brought up the emergency war spending bill earlier this week, it appeared soaring energy prices were more on the mind of Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, than was the cost of war.

Senator BILL FRIST (Republican, Maryland; Senate Majority Leader): The chairman will then be ready to resume debate on the pending energy supplemental bill.

WELNA: The bill, in fact, is not at all about energy, as Appropriations Chairman Thad Cochran, pointed out.

Senator THAD COCHRAN (Republican, Mississippi; Appropriations Chairman): It is an urgent supplemental. It contains emergency funding for the Department of Defense, the Department of State.

WELNA: But Republican leaders have steered clear of all debate on the increasingly unpopular war. The Senate vote yesterday to curtail further debate on the bill stymied an attempt to consider a timetable for withdrawing troops. It was offered by Wisconsin Democrat, Russ Feingold.

Senator RUSS FEINGOLD (Democrat, Wisconsin): We simply cannot continue to avoid asking the tough questions about Iraq. We should not be appropriating billions of dollars for Iraq without debating and demanding a strategy to complete our military mission there.

WELNA: Some senators took umbrage at Feingold's scolding.

Senator JEFF SESSIONS, (Republican, Alabama): I don't know that it's proper to debate the policy and everybody bring out their list of criticisms.

WELNA: Alabama Republican Jeff Sessions said this is not a time for second guessing.

Senator SESSIONS: We made a commitment as a Senate, and as a Congress, and as a president, to carry out this effort in Iraq. We will be successful, but it is being a protracted, violent, tough deal.

WELNA: And Virginia Republican John Warner, who chairs the Armed Services Committee, cautioned against going negative on Iraq. Warner declared he was all for constructive debate.

Senator JOHN WARNER, (Republican, Virginia; Chairman of the Armed Services Committee): But I do believe, at this time, this nation is at war. At the very minute that we're privileged to be here on the floor of this Senate, exercising freedoms of speech and debate, young men and women in our armed forces are in harm's way.

WELNA: Which is why California Democrat Dianne Feinstein, though critical of the Iraq War, won't question the Bush administration's request for more funding.

Senator DIANNE FEINSTEIN (Democrat, California): I know this goes to, well if you don't like what's happening, cut--use the purse strings and just cut off the aid. Then you run the risk of something terrible happening to our people, and it's because you cut the support to the men and women in the American military.

WELNA: Feinstein voted for the Iraq War Resolution three and a half years ago. Illinois Democrat Dick Durbin did not. But he says there's no question which way he'll vote on the war funding.

Senator DICK DURBIN (Democrat, Illinois): My intention is to vote for it. And I've said, from the start, if my son or daughter were in uniform, I'd want them to have everything they need to come home safely. But it is really unfortunate that we haven't had a chance to bring up some of the fundamental questions about the failure of this policy.

WELNA: The only Senate Republican who opposed the Iraq War resolution, was Rhode Island's Lincoln Chafee. Facing a tough reelection bid, he too plans to vote for more war funding.

Senator LINCOLN CHAFEE (Republican, Rhode Island): I think most of us feel we're still at the stage where, as long as we're there, we have to vote the resources to give us the best chance of being successful at getting the new government of Iraq up and functioning.

WELNA: What about those who say this is throwing good money out to bad?

Mr. CHAFEE: I know a lot of us share those thoughts. The choices aren't good. If we don't fund our troops and pull out, what occurs then? And that's not a good scenario.

WELNA: Another Republican, Nebraska's Chuck Hagel, says he regrets how little debate there's been on the war.

Senator CHUCK HAGEL (Republican, Nebraska): We just continue to shovel money into Iraq, without asking the real tough questions.

WELNA: But Vermont Democrat Patrick Leahy expects that debate may still come.

Senator PATRICK LEAHY (Democrat, Vermont): I'm hoping that this fall, the congressional elections will become a debate on the war in Iraq.

WELNA: The added funding for Iraq would bring the total war spending to more than $320 billion.

David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.

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