House Republican leaders said yesterday that they may cut some of the nonmilitary parts of President Bush's $82 billion budget request for Iraq and anti-terrorism efforts because they are not emergencies.
The sharp comments they made in challenging the budget request marked an abrupt departure from the deference the Republicans have shown Bush on earlier war funding. Party members said they are determined to reassert their authority over the budget at a time when the White House is accusing lawmakers of being big spenders.
The main target of the rebellious Republicans is a request for $658 million to build what would be the largest embassy in the world: a fortress in Baghdad's Green Zone that would replace the former palace complex that U.S. officials are using.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, during a flurry of appearances on Capitol Hill, faced repeated questions from Republicans about whether the administration is trying to sneak through expenses as emergencies so they would undergo less scrutiny. GOP lawmakers also complained that the White House funding requests were too vague to analyze.
House Appropriations Committee Chairman Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.) told reporters that last week's request -- which includes ongoing military and intelligence operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, anti-terrorism operations, and tsunami relief -- will get a careful "scrubbing." He said that areas of concern include tsunami aid, troop support and aid to the Middle East. He said they will be reviewed to determine whether they should be funded in regular appropriations bills.
"If we can avoid emergency just for the sake of emergency, we can get a better handle on reducing the rate of growth of spending," Lewis said.
House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) added that GOP leaders intend to "move quickly to provide the necessary funds for our troops."
"But in our initial review of this president's request, we have found some items in foreign aid that probably do not qualify as immediate emergencies," DeLay said.
The unusual fissure between the White House and the Republican-controlled Congress reflects a growing need at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue to be perceived by voters as fiscally conservative.
House Republican Conference Chairman Deborah Pryce (Ohio) said that several leaders have complained that the request includes expenses they think are obviously not emergencies.
"It's certainly not what most of us envision as an emergency supplemental," she said. "There's a lot of probably routine spending in there."
Rumsfeld was peppered with questions about the propriety of the request from Republicans and Democrats during two appearances on Capitol Hill. At first Rumsfeld said he and the Pentagon were not directly responsible for the spending submission -- that it was a matter left to the White House, the Office of Management and Budget, and Congress.
"This issue of what goes in a supplemental is something that really is beyond my pay grade," Rumsfeld told the Senate Appropriations Committee.
But he said the reason for the request was to bypass the months-long annual budget planning and approval process that could hold up expenses for the war. He also said that emergency proposals for transforming military forces now have an intrinsic link to the wars.
Rep. Joel Hefley (R-Colo.) said the wartime costs are largely easy to anticipate because they have held steady -- citing the monthly $4.1 billion operational expenses in Iraq and $800,000 a month in Afghanistan -- and that it is "disturbing" and "frustrating" to him that such items as Army transformation are included in the supplemental funding request.
At the Appropriations Committee hearing, Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) berated Rumsfeld for not including any funding for veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as part of the supplemental request, calling it a troubling omission in the president's budget and in the additional request for war funds. She said she is going to introduce a $2 billion amendment to offer help to veterans.
"There is no mention in here of our responsibility to pay for the continued emotional and physical costs of war," Murray said. "It's as if once these brave men and women leave the service, they're no longer considered an essential priority for the administration."
Republicans said they were especially rankled by plans for the $658 million embassy in Baghdad, which the State Department said would have the largest staff of any U.S. embassy. The number of employees will not be released for security reasons, the staff said. Several Republican lawmakers said the embassy appeared to be a clearly foreseeable capital expense that did not belong in an emergency budget.
Rice, questioned about the embassy at an afternoon appearance before the House Appropriations Committee's subcommittee on foreign operations, said the money is part of the emergency request because the government believes the job can be completed in 24 months if it is begun right away, and the administration would "really like to get started."