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U.S. News
Byrd attacks cost of possible Iraq war

Wednesday, September 25, 2002

By Ann McFeatters, Post-Gazette National Bureau

WASHINGTON -- With estimates of the potential costs of a war with Iraq ranging from $30 billion to $200 billion, and the federal deficit rising past $200 billion, Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., is waging a war of his own -- against the administration.

In a series of caustic and emotional floor speeches that have caused some Republicans to clench their teeth and jump to their feet in anger, the Senate's senior Democrat has accused President Bush of seeking a war with Iraq to distract the country from domestic problems just 43 days before an election that will decide which party controls Congress.

As the Census Bureau yesterday reported that 1.3 million more Americans entered the poverty ranks last year, and the bottom 5 percent of the population has the smallest share of the economic pie since 1979, Byrd took the Senate floor to offer a scathing observation: The poor have been getting poorer even as Bush's top economic adviser, Lawrence Lindsey, has indicated that the prospective war's impact on the economy would be minor even if its cost were to reach $200 billion.

The administration, Byrd declared, was treating that sum as if it were "pocket change," while White House budget chief Mitch Daniels was treating the $9 billion that Democrats want to spend for more social programs as "a bone in the throat," the senator said.

On Monday, the House Budget Committee's Democratic staffers estimated that an attack on Iraq could cost between $30 billion and $60 billion -- much less than Lindsey's figure -- based on the $80 billion cost of the 1991 Persian Gulf war, adjusted for inflation, and the fact that the commitment of U.S. forces this time would amount to about 250,000 troops, compared with 500,000 in 1991. But the committee staff prediction did not consider the cost of remaining in Iraq for peacekeeping and stability after such a war.

In a speech Friday, Byrd noted that White House aides are suggesting that "a substantial American commitment to Iraq is inevitable. At what cost? And who pays?" he demanded. "Will other nations chip in money and men?"

Byrd also accused the president of drumming up support for an Iraq war to boost his poll ratings.

"All of a sudden the president was dropping in the polls, and the domestic situation was such that the administration was appearing to be much like the emperor who had no clothes," the senator said. "All of a sudden, bam! All of this war talk -- the war fervor, the drums of war, the bugles of war, the clouds of war, this war hysteria -- has blown in like a hurricane.

"And what has that done to the president's polls? Seventy percent," Byrd said.

When a reporter asked Daniels yesterday whether the administration was preparing to ask other countries to help defray possible Iraq war costs, as the United States did for the 1991 war, the budget director said he knew of no such plans. Other countries are having economic downturns of their own, he said.

Daniels also said there had been no White House discussion of imposing a war tax on Americans; he said the costs of the prospective war, should the United States go it alone, would be covered by increasing the deficit.

Balancing the budget is not the top priority when national security is threatened, said Daniels, a budget hawk who originally balked at spending $20 billion to help New York City recover.

Byrd also said he would vote against Bush's resolution asking Congress for far-ranging authority to go to war because it amounts to an unconstitutional blank check.

Less than a week before a budgetary deadline that could shut down the government unless a stopgap measure is passed, a stalemated Congress has passed none of the 13 appropriations bills needed to run the government.

Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., sought to say "politely" that Byrd was wrong about the budget, and that Senate Democrats, not Republicans, were the ones stalling on passage of the needed bills.

Byrd expressed surprise that Santorum was disagreeing with him, since he was smiling. But Santorum replied that his mother had taught him to disagree without being disagreeable.

"Oh," replied Byrd, "we're talking about mothers now." Santorum gave up.

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