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Rising cost of war fuels tensions on Capitol Hill

White House defends its $75 billion request by citing costs of inaction.

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As Congress takes up a $74.7 billion supplemental spending request today, lawmakers are bracing for a war that now appears costlier and more protracted than first predicted.

No one doubts that lawmakers will approve the president's emergency request for more funds for the war, as early as this week. Even many who opposed the war (or its timing) say they will pass whatever is needed to support US troops in the field.

But the news from the front is emboldening Capitol Hill to demand a say in how that money is spent - and concessions from the White House on its domestic agenda to pay for it.

Members on both sides of the aisle note that the Bush administration's estimate of the cost of war is only the down payment on a US involvement that could go well beyond fiscal year 2003. Moreover, they add that the costs of winning the war could be trivial compared with the costs of winning a peace.

That anticipated sticker shock of a long involvement in Iraq - estimated by some at more than $200 billion - is the main concern on Capitol Hill, and is the biggest threat to the administration's other priorities in this session of Congress.

Such concern is already undermining prospects for President Bush's No. 1 domestic goal: some $726 billion in new tax cuts, which the Senate lopped in half after the White House produced its first estimates on war costs last week. This debate will carry over into meetings this week to resolve differences between the Senate and the House, which has endorsed the full tax cut.

No blank check?

Lawmakers are also warning the White House that they are not prepared to give the Pentagon the extra flexibility it is requesting in how these additional funds are to be spent, especially in the use of $1.4 billion in foreign aid to support coalition partners.

"I think Congress will respond to the needs whenever the case is made, but we can't afford to give this administration or any other administration a blank check," said Sen. Robert Byrd (D) of West Virginia at a March 28 hearing with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

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