WASHINGTON – In deciding to go on national television Sunday night to push an Iraqi financial package of up to $80 billion, President Bush is responding to pressure from his own party to be more open about his plans for the country’s occupation and reconstruction.

At a time of economic distress at home and growing criticism about American casualties in Iraq, Republican congressional sources said GOP House and Senate leaders made it clear to Bush that he needs to be more forthright about what the U.S. commitment in Iraq entails.

With the price of security and reconstruction surging beyond previous expectations, Democrats and Republicans are demanding greater accountability for spending in Iraq from an administration that has kept them largely in the dark about costs. The size of the package has taken many in Congress aback, although Bush is expected to win approval in the end.

“In order to get this kind of money, there’s not going to be a blank check attached to it,” said Rep. Zach Wamp, R-Tenn., a member of the House Appropriations Committee. “This is one request we need to vet closely. It does not have to be fast-tracked despite the fact that time is of the essence.”

Bush’s address, expected to last 15 minutes, will also give him the opportunity to speak directly to Americans about the military’s troubled occupation and the growing number of casualties, as well as a possible endgame for U.S. involvement.

“My constituents are asking questions about how long are we going to be there, why are we going to stay if the people don’t seem to want us there,” said Rep. William Thornberry, R-Texas, a member of the House Armed Services Committee. While Thornberry said there is broad agreement in Congress about the need to succeed in rebuilding Iraq, “there is work to be done as far as convincing a lot of Americans, not why we’ve done what we’ve done so far, but what’s ahead and what is it going to cost.”

Details of the financial package for fiscal 2004 still are being worked out, but a congressional source said it would be in the range of $60 billion to $80 billion. Of that, the source said, three-quarters probably would go for security related to the U.S. occupation and the rest toward reconstruction of essential infrastructure.

The package also would provide money for reconstruction in Afghanistan and possibly some money for Liberia, a House GOP source said, although the Iraq request would constitute the bulk of the money.

Wamp said the United States should seek to recoup some of the money it plans to spend on Iraq’s reconstruction, perhaps through tapping future oil revenues, and that there should be clear benchmarks to make sure the money is spent wisely.

Wamp is not alone. Iraq has such tremendous potential wealth in its oil fields that “we need to make sure the money goes out as a loan against their oil wealth,” said Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. It would be improper to seek repayment for costs of the war, but not for the costs of reconstruction, he said.

Such a U.S. demand may not go down well with the Iraqi people. But some of the money undoubtedly will be used to upgrade Iraqi oil fields so production can be ramped up and ultimately more revenue earned. Despite the fact that Saddam Hussein did not destroy many oil wells, administration officials have been disappointed that the oil fields have been insufficiently productive to generate enough money for the reconstruction.

Also, Wamp said Congress will expect more cooperation from the rest of the world in helping to rebuild Iraq. But to attract cash from foreign governments, the United States may be forced to relinquish control over the money to international organizations, a House GOP source said.

An aide to Rep. Henry Hyde, R-Ill., chairman of the House International Relations Committee, said that if there is a compromise on a United Nations resolution for assisting Iraq, about 15,000 to 20,000 foreign troops could be sent to patrol fixed assets such as oil wells and pipelines.

“The idea that we need to send additional U.S. troops (to Iraq) is premature,” the aide said.

Both Republican and Democratic members of Congress expect that the package will pass.

“Whatever it takes to maintain the peace, just like whatever it took to win the war, we will have to put up,” Grassley said.

Rep. Vic Snyder, D-Ark., a member of the House Armed Services Committee, said he hopes the size of the funding need spurs the White House to explore more creative ways to solve problems in Iraq.

“The complexity of what’s going on in Iraq is more than just about troop strength and more than just about money,” he said.

“The complexity is in how do we achieve all the things we want to achieve. Now that the administration has admitted this is going to be more costly than they had expected, maybe that will be motivation to see if there are better ways of doing things,” whether through broad consultation of experts or an appeal for international assistance.

Snyder, like Wamp, predicted “much more vigorous scrutiny of how the dollars are being spent” but added that Congress will approve the request, especially if the administration shows “some sense of humility” by acknowledging the enormity of the reconstruction effort.

But as the presidential election approaches, the debate over the money could become a battleground for taking the administration to task on its Iraq policy and its long-term costs.

In a speech Friday on the Senate floor, Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., said Congress will demand answers to such questions as how long the United States will be involved in Iraq, how the security situation will be improved in Baghdad and other cities, and what has been accomplished in restoring basic services.

“Do we have any kind of exit strategy?” Byrd asked. “With massive federal budget deficits staring us in the face, how long can we sustain that level of spending in Iraq?”

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., criticized the administration’s no-bid contracts for a number of reconstruction projects in Iraq, including one to Halliburton, a major oil-services corporation formerly headed by Vice President Dick Cheney.

“The U.S. has an obligation now to rebuild Iraq,” Wyden said. “But at a time when American schools are closing early, and American roads and bridges are crumbling from neglect, the American people deserve to have their money spent as judiciously as possible.”

Republicans did not shy away from criticizing the administration for failing to disclose the full costs in Iraq.

“We’re going to expect more accountability from the administration on a monthly basis, and with hard data,” Wamp said. “As a member of Congress, I have been in many “classified’ briefings with administration officials since the war started. In the vast majority of them, we get nothing more than The New York Times gets.”

Hyde’s aide accused Bush’s critics of “taking cheap political shots” over proposing the package but added that the administration, “as uncomfortable as it may be, must be more forthcoming with information.”

(c) 2003, Chicago Tribune.

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Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

AP-NY-09-06-03 1604EDT

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