Congress's failure last week to agree whether and how to fund the war puts the onus on the Pentagon, at least for now, to find a way to cover expenses in Iraq, potentially forcing the Defense Department to close dozens of domestic military bases and imperil the livelihoods of tens of thousands of defense workers.
The congressional inaction may trigger Secretary Robert Gates to carry out his threat last week to furlough as many as 200,000 civil servants and defense contractors this winter, raising the stakes for Democratic lawmakers determined to tie war funding to a drawdown of US troops from Iraq.
Before lawmakers left town Friday for their Thanksgiving recess, they did approve the Pentagon's $470 billion base budget, but not a supplemental funding request to pay for war operations. Democrats don't want to fund that $189 billion defense request from President Bush unless the money is tied to deadlines, or at least goals, to bring the bulk of troops home from Iraq by the end of 2008.
One Democratic measure, to provide $50 billion for war operations as long as the Pentagon aims to all but finish the redeployment of troops by December 2008, failed in the Senate on Friday. Another measure backed by Republicans, to provide $70 billion with no such deadline language, also failed, leaving the Pentagon uncertain about how to pay for the next several months of operations in Iraq.
That leaves the Pentagon with no choice, according to Secretary Gates, who said bluntly last week that the furloughs would be "the least undesirable" of the limited options if it runs out of money. The Defense Department would begin laying off nonuniformed defense workers, effectively shutting down all Army bases by February, followed by at least some Marine bases a month later.
The urgency stems from federal laws that require workers to be notified 60 days in advance that they might be furloughed in another month.
Though Gates is considered one of the least partisan members of the Bush Cabinet, some see his strategy as politically shrewd. It may well force congressional Democrats to back away, at least for now, from their strategy to tie war funding to a troop-withdrawal deadline, says Loren Thompson, a senior analyst at the Lexington Institute, a think tank near Washington. Otherwise, Democrats could be seen as not supporting troops in the field, even though the furloughs would not affect troops directly at first.
"If this is yet another cat-and-mouse game over war funding, people should be clear that Gates is the cat, because in the end the Democratic mice are not going to be able to have their way," he says.
At the Pentagon Thursday, Gates complained that an uncertain funding stream at best creates busy work for defense planners – and at worst negatively affects the troops.
"The high degree of uncertainty on funding for the war is immensely complicating this task and will have many real consequences for this department and for our men and women in uniform," he said.
Unlike during last year's budget showdown with Congress over war funding, the Pentagon this time has little wiggle room for moving money around, said Gates. The Pentagon currently can move only about $3.7 billion into accounts for war operations – roughly the equivalent of one week's worth of war funding.
That's largely true, says Rep. Joe Sestak (D) of Pennsylvania, a former Navy admiral who worked on the Pentagon's Joint Staff before retiring and running for Congress. "Money is only so fungible among various accounts," he says. "Congress makes it that way."
Representative Sestak voted in favor of the ultimately unsuccessful proposal to fund war operations at $50 billion as long as troops start leaving soon. But he says he doesn't want Congress to micromanage the war via its purse strings and says the better option for Democratic lawmakers is to put such goal-post language in an authorization bill instead of insisting that it be part of an appropriations bill. The distinction would give Pentagon planners a date to work toward, without directly affecting their ability to spend the money Congress appropriates for war operations.
"It makes Congress a less blunt instrument," Sestak says.
Only when lawmakers end their rancor over the war can the two parties come to an agreement about how to proceed, he says. "I don't think we sit down enough with the other side to work things out."
This is not the first time the Pentagon has threatened severe consequences for delayed or insufficient war funding. Earlier this year during budget negotiations for fiscal 2007, the Defense Department said it would have to curtail critical predeployment training for troops and other procurement programs if Congress didn't provide enough money for the war. But the situation was different then, because the Pentagon already had what's called "bridge supplemental" funding that allowed it more flexibility to get through budgetary dry spells. This year, no such supplemental funding exists – hence the Pentagon's threat to begin shutting down US bases.
Ultimately, gridlock over war funding may not end until after the '08 election, says think tank analyst Mr. Thompson.