Vilsack: U.S. must realign its funding priorities

CONCORD -- Former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack on Friday praised New Hampshire for building new homes for people with disabilities, but he said the rebuilding of Iraq will leave little money for such efforts on a national scale.

"We are embarking on a program in which we are spending literally billions of dollars to reconstruct a country halfway around the world, which means we don't have sufficient resources for some of the programs that are so important to keeping the American dream alive," he told employees of Granite State Independent Living, a nonprofit group that broke ground on its first "EasyLiving Home" earlier in the day.

"It may be hard to see the connection between an effort to escalate troops in Iraq and the opportunity to create more housing for people with disabilities, but there is a direct connection because resources are limited and we have to make choices," said Vilsack, who is seeking the Democratic nomination for president.

Given President Bush's plan to send 21,500 more troops to Iraq, Congress is sure to reject requests for more money for worthy projects like New Hampshire's housing program, Vilsack said.

"Someone will say, we just don't have the resources," he said. "We do have the resources. We just don't have the priorities right."

Vilsack, who favors removing most American troops from the Baghdad area and southern Iraq, has called on Congress to block funds for additional troops in Iraq. He dismissed proposals advanced by some of his potential rivals to put a cap on U.S. troop levels in Iraq.

"I don't get the capping of troops. To me, we've got to be taking troops out of Iraq," he said earlier after fielding questions from savvy seventh-graders at Londonderry Middle School.

Vilsack, who pulled down a world map and scribbled on the classroom's white board to make some of his points, told one girl he would ask Iraq's neighbors to help more with the rebuilding of the country and would focus more on making Iraqis responsible for running their own government.

"If the lights aren't working in your house, if the water's not running and you don't see police on the street, you're not likely to call Governor Lynch or President Bush and ask about that. You're probably going to call the mayor or city council," he said. "We need to build more government capacity at the local level."

When another pupil asked whether third-party candidates should be included in national debates, Vilsack said he agreed with rules barring them but said such candidates still can be heard by millions of voters by using the Internet.

"There are rules that pretty much make sense," he said. "But there are new ways for independent parties or third parties to get their message out, not necessarily being on the stage at a presidential debate."

Asked whether the country is ready for a female president, Vilsack wasn't quite as direct.

"Everybody should have the opportunity," he said, noting with regret that Iowa never has elected a woman to Congress or as governor. "I feel like everyone should feel like they have the chance to run for president."

Neither the questioner nor Vilsack mentioned Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, who's expected to announce any day that she is running for president.