GOP Turns to Israeli Lobby to Boost Iraq Support

Posted October 3, 2003 at 6:30pm

With the fate of President Bush’s $87 billion funding request for Iraq and Afghanistan still up in the air, Senate GOP leaders have called in one of the most powerful groups in Washington to lobby Democrats on their behalf — the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

AIPAC has begun targeting Senate Democrats who are either on the fence on the overall spending package or want to place restrictions on how the United States pays for Iraq reconstruction, such as converting portions of the aid request to loans rather than outright grants. Roughly $20.3 billion of the $87 billion Bush has requested in the supplemental covers Iraqi reconstruction.

AIPAC’s initiative is part of an intense public and private campaign by the White House to win support for the Iraq supplemental package without conditions. Senior White House officials have begun meeting with small groups of lawmakers to lobby them on the overall package, and the Pentagon and State Department are also stepping up their pressure tactics. Bush himself has called on Congress to enact the package as is.

AIPAC officials won’t say who they are focusing their efforts on, but Senate GOP insiders and White House officials think the powerful organization’s intervention could be critical for Democrats such as Sens. Joe Lieberman (Conn.), Frank Lautenberg (N.J.) and Carl Levin (Mich.), as well as the two Florida Democrats, Sens. Bob Graham and Bill Nelson, among others.

“We believe that this package is crucial to U.S. success in Iraq, an effort that supports our national security and that of our allies in the Middle East,” wrote Amy Friedkin and Howard Kohr, AIPAC’s president and executive director, in a letter sent to all Senators on Oct. 2.

“As Congress considers the pending request for supplemental funding, we hope you will keep our thoughts in mind and support the necessary funding, both for our soldiers in Iraq and for the important work of building and stabilizing Iraq. Failure in this effort will have devastating consequences for our security and that of the region. Indeed, America cannot afford to fail,” they wrote.

Lautenberg, who has expressed interest in structuring the reconstruction funds as loans that would have to be paid back by Iraq, acknowledged that his views clash with AIPAC’s position.

“It means that there are positions we could differ on sometimes,” said Lautenberg, a noted supporter of Israel, of the AIPAC letter. “I don’t believe that you have to turn a blind eye to what Iraq means to us, in terms of commitment or cost.”

But White House officials privately believe they have turned a corner in recent days in the political struggle over the Iraq supplemental, scheduled to be marked up by the full House Appropriations Committee this Thursday.

Despite continued calls for loans rather than grants by seven Senate Republicans, as many as 50 House Republicans and a sizable number of Democrats, Bush administration officials predict that the president will get his way on the final makeup of the package.

“At the end of the day, there’s going to be overwhelming support for this,” said a senior Bush administration official close to the issue. “We need to get this done and we need to get it done now.”

The White House and Senate GOP leadership were able to fend off a proposal last week by Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.) to pay for the Iraq supplemental measure by raising taxes on wealthy Americans. Biden has come out in strong support of classifying the reconstruction funds as grants.

Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) is pushing an alternative proposal to use $10 billion of the reconstruction funds for an Iraq trust fund, administered by the World Bank, a plan backed by seven Republicans including Hutchinson. The Hutchinson proposal shows the difficult road the White House and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) have had to negotiate, and demonstrates the Democrats’ leverage in this fight.

Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) is calling for an Iraq reconstruction fund as well, and Sens. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) want to hold back half the funds until Bush can demonstrate international support for the U.S. reconstruction effort in Iraq.

Faced with this Democratic opposition, Senate Majority Whip Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) came up with the idea of asking for AIPAC’s help.

“I strongly suggested that they pitch in and help us,” McConnell said on Friday, noting AIPAC’s strong support for Bush’s war on terror after Sept. 11, 2001, and the ouster of Iraq President Saddam Hussein.

Calling a peaceful and stable Iraq “very much in Israel’s interest,” McConnell said his pitch was to get AIPAC to focus on wavering Democrats, particularly on the issue of reconstruction funds.

“I thought they could be very helpful,” said McConnell, who left Friday to lead a delegation of Republicans to Iraq. That delegation includes GOP Sens. Conrad Burns (Mont.), Craig Thomas (Wyo.), Larry Craig (Idaho) and Lincoln Chafee (R.I.).

“There is momentum in the direction of the president,” McConnell added, noting that polls right now show public support for giving the Iraqis loans for rebuilding their nation. McConnell, however, admitted that “it’s going to require some political courage” for Senators up for re-election in 2004.

But it appears increasingly likely that the House will place some restrictions on how the funds are used, or possibly even cut the size of the package well below the $20 billion mark. Rep. Jim Kolbe (R-Ariz.), chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee on foreign operations, prefers that approach as a way to limit Congressional enthusiasm for converting grants into loans.

Senior House GOP aides predict that the bill will include a provision preventing any of the funds from being used to pay off foreign debts run up by Hussein’s regime.

In addition, Republican insiders predict there will be “sunshine” language on some of the reconstruction contracts handed out without competitive bids or with lax cost controls. The Afghanistan portion of the legislation is expected to include such restrictions.

Some conservative House Republicans don’t think that such compromises will go far enough.

“What I would like to see is some type of tie between giving this money as a grant and ensuring that the other countries forgive the loans they have to Iraq,” said Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), adding that he had made such a proposal in Republican Study Committee meetings and that it had been well-received. Iraq has more than $100 billion in foreign debt, much of it to France, Germany and Russia, all of which strongly opposed the U.S. campaign to topple Hussein.

“I don’t think many of us take that seriously,” Flake said. “It’s pretty fungible money. In order for that to happen, you have to make sure those other countries forgive those loans.”

“We’d like to see some of this offset,” Flake added. “We’d like to see a commitment to shave domestic spending or shave some foreign ops spending elsewhere.”

Paul Kane and Ben Pershing contributed to this report.