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Senator: Time for Iraq to pay its way

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KAI RYSSDAL: As it happens, Congress is chewing over a new supplemental spending request for Iraq and Afghanistan as we speak. The White House wants $108 billion for continuing military operations. Some lawmakers say it’s past time for the U.S. to stop paying for reconstruction. Nebraska Democrat Ben Nelson’s one of them. Senator, thanks for being here.

SEN. BEN NELSON: My pleasure. Thank you.

RYSSDAL: What did you think when you saw this $70 billion number about Iraq’s oil revenues?

NELSON: It’s obvious that there’s a windfall that Iraq is experiencing and it’s at our expense. They’re generating a surplus at a time, in large part, because of our defense and our work on their behalf, we’re generating a deficit.

RYSSDAL: What would you have us do then, sir, with the money that we’re spending on Iraq?

NELSON: Well, I’m working with Senator Collins from Maine and Senator Bayh from Indiana to create a bill that would provide that any future reconstruction money, for example, in Iraq, would be in the form of a loan or direct payment by the Iraqi government. If we’d been able to get the administration to back off blocking the legislation in ’03 that would require Iraq to take money in the form of loans as opposed to grants . . . If we’d done that, $45 billion that the U.S. government has spent for reconstruction would be an IOU to the United States.

RYSSDAL: What’s your response to the argument, though, senator that in large part what’s going on in Iraq is the responsibility of the United States — we should help them pay for it?

NELSON: Well, we have to the tune of $500 billion thus far. The question is, How much? And how fair is it for us to continue to pay largely all of it when we’re generating a deficit at a time when they’re generating surpluses that could go as high as $70 billion this year. And we’re sitting with $25 [billion] to $30 billion of their money in banks in New York. So, it’s a matter of going back and asking the question, If they can pay their own way in this, why shouldn’t they?

RYSSDAL: Would you be ready to vote against the president’s $100 billion request for a continuing operations in Iraq and Afghanistan if you don’t get your way on this?

NELSON: No. I don’t know that I would. We’re taking a belt and suspenders approach. We’re going to get as much of this on the supplemental as we can, but it’s also possible that it would come up again or alongside with the authorization bill of the defense budget. So, we may have more than one bite of that apple.

RYSSDAL: Ben Nelson, Democratic senator from the state of Nebraska. Senator, thanks for your time.

NELSON: Thank you, Kai. Good to talk with you.

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