As congressional leaders and the White House continue talks aimed at producing a bill providing additional funds for the Iraq war, the key question for the construction industry is how much money the final version will have for infrastructure programs. Attention is centered on the Senate, where Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said May 10, “There is not a thing off the table” in the negotiations. He added, “There are 150 scenarios as to how this matter is going to be handled.”
President Bush and House and Senate Democrats have been tussling for nearly two months over the Iraq bill. The main dispute is not about money but language setting timetables for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq or benchmarks showing progress there. At press time, the Senate was debating Iraq milestone provisions proposed as amendments to a pending Water Resources Development Act.
In late April, Congress approved a $124-billion spending measure, including $99.5 billion for the Dept. of Defense, mostly for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, plus about $9 billion in construction-related aid. But Bush vetoed that bill, chiefly because of its troop-withdrawal provisions. House Democrats could not muster the two-thirds majority needed to override the President’s action.
House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.) then split the vetoed measure into two bills. One, totaling about $119 billion, contained the $95.5 billion for DOD and nearly all of the $9 billion for construction. But it also held back $52.8 billion of DOD’s aid until Iraq benchmarks were achieved and Congress voted to release the money. The other bill contained about $4.5 billion in non-defense, non-construction funds.
The House passed the two measures on May 10. Bush again promised a veto but also indicated a willingness to compromise, saying, “It makes sense to have [Iraq] benchmarks as a part of our discussion on how to go forward.”
As White House-Senate talks go on, there are hopes of a deal by the Memorial Day recess. It was unclear whether that goal would be met and how much of the $9 billion for construction programs would stay in the eventual package.
Bush has criticized non-defense portions of the earlier versions of the measure, saying that Congress should “leave these special pork projects out of the bill.” Nevertheless, an industry source expects most of the $9 billion to be in the final legislation. He says the $3.1 billion to continue the current base realignment and closure round will survive because it is military funding. The source says he is “98% sure” the nearly $900 million for Veterans Affairs health-care facilities will be included and “pretty sure” the $1.4 billion for Army Corps of Engineers flood-control improvements on the Gulf Coast will be approved, too.