Rising cost of war fuels tensions on Capitol Hill

White House defends its $75 billion request by citing costs of inaction.

As Congress takes up a $74.7 billion supplemental spending request today, lawmakers are bracing for a war that now appears costlier and more protracted than first predicted.

No one doubts that lawmakers will approve the president's emergency request for more funds for the war, as early as this week. Even many who opposed the war (or its timing) say they will pass whatever is needed to support US troops in the field.

But the news from the front is emboldening Capitol Hill to demand a say in how that money is spent - and concessions from the White House on its domestic agenda to pay for it.

Members on both sides of the aisle note that the Bush administration's estimate of the cost of war is only the down payment on a US involvement that could go well beyond fiscal year 2003. Moreover, they add that the costs of winning the war could be trivial compared with the costs of winning a peace.

That anticipated sticker shock of a long involvement in Iraq - estimated by some at more than $200 billion - is the main concern on Capitol Hill, and is the biggest threat to the administration's other priorities in this session of Congress.

Such concern is already undermining prospects for President Bush's No. 1 domestic goal: some $726 billion in new tax cuts, which the Senate lopped in half after the White House produced its first estimates on war costs last week. This debate will carry over into meetings this week to resolve differences between the Senate and the House, which has endorsed the full tax cut.

No blank check?

Lawmakers are also warning the White House that they are not prepared to give the Pentagon the extra flexibility it is requesting in how these additional funds are to be spent, especially in the use of $1.4 billion in foreign aid to support coalition partners.

"I think Congress will respond to the needs whenever the case is made, but we can't afford to give this administration or any other administration a blank check," said Sen. Robert Byrd (D) of West Virginia at a March 28 hearing with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

Congress is also pressing the administration on the costs of reconstruction and building democracy in Iraq and the region. The uncertainties in both these ventures make estimates precarious.

While defense analysts can calculate the cost of a Tomahawk cruise missile ($1 million), it's more difficult to assign numbers to reconstruction and democracy-building. The president's current supplemental request only includes up to $3.4 billion for reconstruction and humanitarian assistance, but experts say those nonmilitary costs could range from a low end of $25 billion to at least $135 billion over the next five years.

"Anytime you have underlying debates about such assumptions, you can't do meaningful financial or budgetary analysis," says Steven Kosiak, director of budget studies for the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a Washington-based think tank. "Some people are surprised by the range of estimates, but it just reflects the underlying reality."

Experts are also struggling with how to factor in costs to the US economy of unanticipated consequences of a long presence in Iraq, including a shift in oil prices. While some administration spokesmen have suggested the price of oil could quickly drop to $20 a barrel in a post-Saddam Hussein Iraq, others say that a disruption in supplies or an Arab oil boycott could cost the US economy more than the war.

"The mere threat of war has already raised the cost of oil used in the American economy by nearly $100 billion a year," says Sen. Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts.

Numbers so far

In the run-up to this week's debate, key administration officials are circulating several estimates to ease concerns. These include:

• The cost of keeping US forces in the region "in support of diplomacy" is high - at least $40 billion this fiscal year. "So even without a war, the cost of disarming Iraq would have been significant," Mr. Rumsfeld told a House panel last week.

• The costs of "appeasement" are huge - $160 billion for the terror war's cost to the economy since Sept. 11, plus $75 billion for property losses from the attack itself, according to the Office of Management and Budget in a report released last week. One of the Bush administration's arguments for going to war in Iraq is that it will reduce the threat of terrorist attacks on American soil in the future (although some in Washington are disputing that contention).

• The cost of this war, as a percentage of the US economy, will likely be small by historical standards. Senate Republicans asked the Congressional Research Service to produce some historical comparisons of the percentage of gross domestic product devoted to various wars in American history, which range from 38 percent in World War II to 4.6 percent in the first Gulf War. "At present, military outlays would have to increase significantly as a percentage of GDP before they became similar in size to the smallest episodes considered in this report," concludes the report.

But opponents say that the biggest cost of the war is also the most imponderable: the cost in human lives and America's image in the region. "Americans are beginning to learn the cost of war in terms of human life. It is time to reflect on what this war will cost America in terms of the brave men and women who serve, in terms of the loss of innocent life, the sacrifice of the domestic agenda, and the ruination of America's standing in the world," says Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D) of Ohio.

Military outlays since 1940

Peak costs as a percentage of gross domestic product

Operation Desert Storm 4.6%

Reagan cold-war buildup 6.2%

Vietnam War 9.4%

Korean War 14%

World War II 38%

Source: Congressional Research Service

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