Bush ready to steamroller $87bn package through Congress

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The Independent US

George Bush appeared set to win congressional approval for his $87bn (£52bn) Iraq package last night, including the controversial $20bn in reconstruction costs.

The Senate and the House expect to vote on the measure by tomorrow so that President Bush can sign it before the Madrid conference of potential Iraq donors at the end of next week. By then, Mr Bush should also be armed with a United Nations Security Council resolution, opening the way, in principle, for more foreign countries to send money and troops to Iraq.

In both chambers, Republican majorities are standing firm against polls showing that up to 60 per cent of voters oppose further spending on Iraq and a growing number of Democrats critical of the Bush administration's management of the post-war period.

Senate Republicans have beaten back two amendments, one slashing the reconstruction funds, the other seeking to convert the $20bn request to a loan that Iraq would repay out of oil revenues. They have also blocked attempts to separate the $20bn from the $67bn earmarked for military operations. Many more Democrats would oppose the reconstruction funds if they were separate.

As things stand, a "no" vote to the combined package would be portrayed by Republicans as abandoning the troops, when US soldiers are being killed on an almost daily basis in Iraq.

The issue is reverberating on the 2004 election campaign trail, shattering unity among the Democrat candidates. Senator Joe Lieberman, long an Iraq hawk, says he will support the $87bn request. But the dilemma is particularly acute for Senators John Edwards of North Carolina and John Kerry of Massachusetts, bitterly critical now of the administration's performance and the possible manipulation of pre-war intelligence - but who supported last year'sOctober Senate resolution giving the President authority to go to war.

Mr Edwards said he would oppose the request. Mr Kerry has said he was "leaning against" it. But his rivals say he is mainly trying to avoid being outflanked by Howard Dean, the former Vermont governor and opponent of the war from the outset. Mr Dean has ridden that cause so successfully that he has overtaken Mr Kerry as frontrunner for the nomination. Like General Wesley Clark, another dark horse contender, Mr Dean does not have to vote on Capitol Hill.