Democrats want to redirect war aid

Afghanistan needs more resources, particularly for reconstruction, House speaker says.

House Democrats, already trying to use the $100 billion supplemental war funding package to stall President Bush's plan to send more ground troops to Iraq, said Wednesday they want to use the money to refocus on Afghanistan in the fight against terrorism.

While Bush has frequently called Iraq the "central front in the war on terrorism" as he sought to justify growing U.S. involvement there, many Democrats say Iraq is a diversion from the broader battle. Democratic leaders drove this point home Wednesday, following a White House meeting on Afghanistan with their Republican counterparts, Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney.

"We have long said that [Afghanistan] should be the focus of the war on terror," Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., told reporters at the White House, saying the meeting was the "start of a dialogue that had been absent."

Cheney, just back from a visit to Afghanistan that put him in the proximity of an attack that some have viewed as an assassination attempt, recently said Democratic attempts to block President Bush's Iraq troop surge would give comfort to terrorists. A focus on Afghanistan, though, might insulate Democrats from some of that criticism by keeping a focus on terrorism even while standing up to Bush on Iraq.

The meeting was convened at the urging of Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Chairman Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn. Participants said Iraq never entered into the discussion.

"We didn't discuss Iraq at all," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. "This meeting was entirely about Afghanistan."

Leaders from both parties said the session was conducted in a spirit of bipartisanship.

Pelosi said that "more resources" must be devoted to Afghanistan, particularly for reconstruction. McConnell did not specifically commit to providing more funds, but he minimized possible disagreement, saying he did not believe the two parties would engage in a major dustup over funding for Afghanistan.

Prior to the White House meeting, Pelosi, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., and other Democratic leaders met with House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman John Murtha, D-Pa., and House Armed Services Chairman Ike Skelton, D-Mo., to try to come up with a concrete response to Bush's proposed troop surge in the supplemental. The meeting ended without a decision.

Pelosi said Tuesday that Democrats were exploring directing funds specifically for troop readiness, and the Democratic leaders played up the idea of requiring Bush to report to Congress on Iraqi efforts to take over security needs in the country.

The idea of adding a presidential waiver process to Murtha's proposed troop readiness restrictions was also floated to the caucus Tuesday, but it was not clear whether it would be backed by liberals who support Murtha's original idea to stop troop increases in Iraq, or by conservatives who balked at his initial plan.

Democrats have one week to figure out how to proceed before the March 7 target date for a markup of the supplemental spending bill by the House Appropriations Committee. Hoyer left Tuesday's meeting saying additional sessions would be needed. "It's evolving," one Democratic leadership aide said.