War costs irk Congress

Bush requests $72 billion in 'emergency' defense funding.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

More than four years into the war on terror, Congress is chafing - but not yet balking - at a tab nearing $400 billion.

President Bush's latest emergency spending request, sent to Capitol Hill last week, includes $72.4 billion for the global war on terror. He also asked for another $19.8 billion for hurricane relief at home.

Few lawmakers care to risk not supporting US troops or first responders, making these must-pass bills. As such, they're attracting add-ons that lawmakers deem "emergencies."

Recommended: Default

But unlike the previous five defense supplemental bills, No. 6 comes at the start of what lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are calling a make-or-break year for US engagement in Iraq.

"Until the United States succeeds in helping the Iraqis build strong, new political and military institutions, a massive commitment of external military forces and economic assistance will continue to be necessary to forestall a civil war," writes Kenneth Pollack and the Iraq Policy Working Group at the Brookings Institution, in a paper widely circulating on Capitol Hill.

While Congress won't take up this request until early March, hearings on FY 2007 spending last week signaled the intensity and range of issues to come in a broad debate on the war. "I think that we're inciting terrorism," said Rep. John Murtha (D) of Pennsylvania, the ranking Democrat on the Defense subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee, in a hearing on the Defense Department's FY 2007 budget request.

Grumbling over costs

Some lawmakers are already grumbling that war costs should be part of the president's annual budget request, $2.8 trillion for FY 2007, and not tacked on as "emergency spending."

"We could do it either way," Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told the House panel. "By doing it in the supplemental, frankly, which I personally prefer - we can have much better information for you because it's prepared at a later date," he said.

Mr. Bush is asking for $65.3 billion for the Department of Defense to cover operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, repair and replace equipment, and train Iraqi and Afghan security forces; $4.2 billion for the Department of State and other international operations; and $2.9 billion for the intelligence community. That includes $10.9 billion to replace and upgrade damaged equipment, such as body armor; $9.6 billion for personnel costs, including bonuses and incentive pay; $3.7 billion to train and equip Iraqi security forces; $2.2 billion for Afghan forces; and $1.9 billion to improve detection of roadside bombs.

In his FY 2007 budget request, Bush includes an additional $50 billion as a "bridge fund" for war costs after Oct. 1. "I think we would expect that sometime this spring, we'll come forward to the Congress and propose an allocation of that $50 billion allowance that we included in the 2007 budget, but I don't have a date on that," said Joel Kaplan, deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget, in a White House conference call on Thursday.

Some say that not including costs of the war in normal budget channels prevents an open debate in Congress about tradeoffs between "guns and butter," defense spending vs. other priorities - or even tradeoffs within the defense establishment. Rep. C.W. Bill Young (R) of Florida, who chairs the House Defense subcommittee, worries that war costs are starving procurement of weapons systems, such as the DDX Destroyer and the F-22 Tactical Fighter Aircraft, which were cut by $5.3 billion in the president's FY 2007 budget.

Many Democrats plan to use the emergency spending request as a vehicle to address what they call urgent needs at home.

"I intend to use the upcoming debate on the president's supplemental appropriations request to highlight the emergencies we are confronting right here at home, and work to make progress in addressing each of them," says Sen. Patty Murray (D) of Washington, a member of both the Senate budget and appropriations committees.

In other hearings last week, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle questioned administration officials on why, despite spending more than $20 billion on rebuilding Iraq's infrastructure, services were still below prewar levels. The release of new photographs of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad fueled questions on the loss of American prestige in the world.

Democrats: Call to withdraw?

As members from both parties express frustration with the Iraq war's outcomes and mounting costs, a debate is intensifying within the Democratic Party on whether to back a plan to withdraw most US troops from Iraq by the end of 2007, such as the one proposed by Mr. Murtha.

"Frankly, I have not yet endorsed the Murtha proposal because I am dubious that any plan at this point could wind up with a good ending," said Rep. David Obey (D) of Wisconsin, the top Democrat on the House Appropriations committee. "But I have to say that I am persuaded that setting a timetable, even if it's a flexible one ... is likely to remove one of the main arguments that the insurgents try to use ... that we're going to be there forever."

Meanwhile, Republicans are grappling with the soaring costs of a war with no firm ending point at the same time that they are gearing up to defend their control of the House and Senate in midterm elections.

"There is a dilemma within the Democratic Party: The base is overwhelmingly against the war, but leadership realizes it would be very dangerous for the party to be viewed as committed to anything but success in Iraq," says Marshall Wittmann, a former conservative activist now with the Democratic Leadership Council.

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