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Bush wins few GOP senators on Iraq money

Democrat Gephardt backs Bush position for grant, not loan

From Jonathan Karl and Steve Turnham
CNN Washington Bureau

President Bush pressed GOP senators go along with his position on money for Iraq reconstruction.
President Bush pressed GOP senators go along with his position on money for Iraq reconstruction.

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- President Bush attempted to cajole GOP senators this week in a meeting on his Iraq spending request, showing what one senator said was the most passion the president has exhibited since just after the September 11 terror attacks.

But for the most part, senators who want part of the $20 billion Iraq reconstruction money to be a loan said Bush did not persuade them to go along with his argument Tuesday that all of it should be a straight grant.

There were mixed reactions among Democrats, too.

Bush got backing for his position Wednesday from a Democratic presidential hopeful.

Rep. Dick Gephardt, D-Missouri, said he supports Bush's entire $87 billion supplemental request, which includes the $20 billion, calling it "the only responsible course of action."

A spokeswoman in his office said that while Gephardt will vote for the bill in its current form -- which makes all the money a grant -- he would prefer that part of it be a loan and would vote for an amendment to that effect if one is offered in the House.

Among the other Democratic presidential candidates, Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut supports the Bush plan while Sens. John Kerry of Massachusetts and John Edwards of North Carolina oppose it, as does Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said she would vote against the supplemental request.

Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of State Colin Powell met with Republican senators at their weekly policy lunch Wednesday and repeated the president's firm advocacy of grants over loans.

Bush described as intense

One exception among the mostly negative positions taken by GOP senators was Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pennsylvania.

"I had not seen such passion or fervor from the president since two days after 9/11," Specter said of Tuesday's meeting with Bush. "His force, I thought, was impressive and I am re-thinking [the issue]."

Other senators who have advocated for loans over grants said Bush failed to win them over.

"He was unambiguous in his message to us," said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, author of an amendment that would convert half of the $20 billion into a loan.

"I certainly respect his viewpoint, but I did not find the arguments put forward at the meeting to be persuasive."

Collins said the president was very intense and joked that " 'I probably won't be asked back anytime soon.' "

Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas said, "Iraq has the capacity to pay for itself."

And Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine issued a press release shortly after the meeting broke up saying, "In the long run, the loans will help Iraq make its own way to a vibrant, free and prosperous future."

Two Republican senators who asked not to be named said the president's comments were so harshly worded that they alienated some of those he was trying to win over.

"The president was very forceful and condescending," one senator said. "This is old-style politics, and it made me mad."

"They were very upset," said the other senator. On the question of grants versus loans, this senator said Bush told the group, "I'm not going to debate it," as senators started asking questions.

Wednesday afternoon meetings were taking place all over the Capitol as the GOP leadership tried to win over enough senators to the president's point of view to head off a loan amendment.

At the same time, Collins and her co-sponsor, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, have been talking to Democrats Ben Nelson, D-Nebraska, and Evan Bayh, D-Indiana, about a bipartisan amendment to make some of the reconstruction money a loan.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, a loan supporter who was also present at the meeting with Bush, said he found Nelson and Bayh's approach "very encouraging."

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