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Thursday, March 20

Congress unites behind troops but argues over tax cuts

By Jon Frandsen and Brian Tumulty | GNS

WASHINGTON - Congress voiced united support for American troops Thursday as they began pushing into Iraq, but wishing Godspeed to the armed services was about the only place where Republicans and Democrats could find solidarity.

While there was broad agreement that the debate about waging war was over the minute U.S. missiles began raining down on Baghdad and soldiers began donning chemical weapons gear, skirmishes broke out all day over the propriety of Republican demands for a tax cut in the face of a conflict whose huge cost is unknown.

Democrats chastised Republicans for pushing so hard to complete a blueprint for the 2004 budget this week and for making room for the tax cut in the budget. But they complained bitterly that there is no estimate of war costs or details on how they should be paid.

"You are going to pay for the war sooner than later. Why not begin now? It is the honest thing to do," Rep. Ike Skelton, D-Mo., the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee told reporters.

Republicans, who argue that war estimates at this early stage are useless, said pressing on with legislative business was as important symbolically as statements of national unity.

"I believe it is important for us to show that the business of the country will continue," said House Budget Committee Chairman Jim Nussle, R-Iowa.

Democrats complained that the tax cut also meant making deep cuts in a broad swath of programs - including a $14.6 billion reduction in veterans benefits.

"It is the meanest cut of all to cut our veterans at this time, at this day at this hour,'' said Rep. David Scott, D-Ga. "This is not conservative compassion, this is conservative meanness.''

Nussle said spending for veterans programs will actually increase in the 2004 budget - just not as much as originally intended. Still, Democrats contend the smaller amount will translate into reductions.

In the Senate, the budget debate was clearly segregated from the expressions of support of the troops and the effort to show national resolve. Senators passed on a 99-0 vote a resolution stating support and gratitude to Bush, the troops, their families and U.S. allies in the war on Iraq - especially Britain and its prime minister, Tony Blair.

Sen. Zell Miller, D-Ga., did not vote.

Things did not go quite as smoothly in the House, where some anti-war Democrats pushed for a resolution that supported the troops but did not mention Bush. House leaders were trying to smooth out language and expected debate late in the day.

Earlier, the House passed 422-0 a bill that would ease the tax burdens of the armed forces and their families. The measure, which had been pulled from the House floor earlier this month because of fights over unrelated items, would provide tax credits for burial payments, child-care benefits and travel expenses for National Guard troops during training.

In the Senate, Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., and Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., made a point of appearing together on the floor at the start of debate - essentially declaring a cease-fire in a rhetorical war that has been raging for days.

"Our prayers are with you," Frist told the troops. "Godspeed for victory."

Daschle told the men and women in the military that "history will long remember their service. They have our support, our devotion and our gratitude."

Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., who battled fruitlessly last fall against the measure giving Bush authority to wage war, said he and other opponents were as of "today and throughout this conflict?united in support of the men and women of our armed services."

"And we will continue in the years to come," Kennedy pledged, "to do all we can here at home to uphold the same great, fundamental values for which our troops are now risking their lives - for opportunity and hope, for liberty and justice for all."

The joining together of Frist and Daschle was more than symbolic. It was the end of a nasty fight that broke out Monday - when it was clear war was imminent - after Daschle harshly criticized Bush for failing "so miserably at diplomacy we are now forced to war."

"It's time to move on," Frist said. "It's time for the United States Senate to pull together."

Daschle echoed the sentiment on the Senate floor, saying: "We may have had differences of opinion about what brought us to this point, but the president of the United States is the commander in chief, and today we unite behind him."

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John Warner, R-Va., then sent the two leaders off the floor with these words: "I am very proud that differences have been reconciled and that this resolution bears both of your distinguished names."