WASHINGTON — President Bush on Monday signed legislation to pay for the war operations in Iraq and Afghanistan for the rest of his presidency and beyond, hailing the $162 billion plan as a rare product of bipartisan cooperation.
"This bill shows the American people that even in an election year, Republicans and Democrats can come together to stand behind our troops and their families," Bush said in an Oval Office ceremony.
Bush made clear to thank members of both parties in Congress, singling out some sponsors of the long-delayed, compromise measure for praise. His positive comments contrasted with the confrontational tone that has dominated the debate between Congress and his administration over Iraq.
The legislation will bring to more than $650 billion the amount Congress has provided for the Iraq war since it began more than five years ago. For operations in Afghanistan, the total is nearly $200 billion, according to congressional officials.
"Our nation has no greater responsibility than supporting our men and women in uniform _ especially since we're at war," Bush said. "This is a responsibility all of us in Washington share, not as Republicans or Democrats, but as Americans."
The package approved by Congress includes a doubling of GI Bill college benefits for troops and veterans. It also provides a 13-week extension of unemployment benefits, $2.7 billion in emergency flood relief for the Midwest, and tens of billions of dollars for food aid, anti-drug enforcement, Louisiana levee repairs and many other items.
The bill will fund the wars well into next year, when their fate will be in the hands of Bush's successor.
It also gives the next president several months to set Iraq policy after taking office in January _ and spares lawmakers the need to cast more war funding votes closer to Election Day.
"Though it took more than 500 days for the new Congress to get it done, the combat forces serving in Iraq and Afghanistan will now have sufficient funding to carry out their missions through next spring," Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said in a statement.
The Democratic majority in Congress has tried, unsuccessfully, to force troop withdrawals and other limits on Bush's ability to conduct the war. Bush said the bill will allow troops to prevail in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"I appreciate that Republicans and Democrats in Congress agreed to provide these vital funds without tying the hands of our commanders and without an artificial timetable of withdrawal from Iraq," Bush said, flanked by some of his top officials, including Defense Secretary Robert Gates.
Many war opponents in Congress, in fact, have expressed frustration and a sense of resignation at having to yield to the lame duck president.
No lawmakers attended the ceremony, White House press secretary Dana Perino said, because "they're all out of town." Congress is in recess.
The new GI Bill essentially would guarantee a full scholarship at any in-state public university, along with a monthly housing stipend, for people who serve in the military for at least three years. It is aimed at replicating the benefits awarded veterans of World War II and more than doubles the value of the benefit _ from $40,000 today to $90,000.
The GI Bill measure, authored by Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., had such extraordinary support from both Democrats and Republicans that White House objections were easily overridden. The bill also allows veterans to transfer their benefits to their spouse or a child, an idea Bush has championed.
The White House tried much harder to kill the effort to extend unemployment benefits as part of the war funding bill. But Bush's administration ultimately supported the compromise version, which requires people to have worked for 20 weeks in order to be eligible for the extended payments.