By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 28, 2006
President Bush and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld sought yesterday to allay concerns among the nation's governors about funding and restructuring of the National Guard, but governors in both parties later said the administration must do more to satisfy them fully.
Governors were united in their opposition to what they regard as cuts in Guard funding in Bush's fiscal 2007 budget as well as fears that the Pentagon has been slow to replace equipment that has been shipped to Iraq with state Guard units. Early this month, all 50 governors signed a letter opposing the new budget and calling on Defense Department officials to reequip returning units as quickly as possible.
The governors raised the Guard issue at their meeting with Bush at the White House yesterday morning, and then met with Rumsfeld and Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, at a private lunch for a detailed discussion of the problem.
Much of the focus was on the gap between the Guard's authorized strength of 350,000 and the budget, which includes money for 333,000 Guard troops. Bush and Rumsfeld said they are committed to funding the Guard at the fully authorized level. They also said the equipment sent to Iraq will be replaced and in many cases upgraded.
The verbal assurances helped assuage some governors, but many said they still have questions. Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne (R), co-chairman of a National Guard committee of the National Governors Association, said he remained perplexed by what he heard. "I appreciated the president saying he's committed to the full strength, but the money is not in there," he said. "They must find the money."
Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (R), the current NGA chairman, said Rumsfeld acknowledged that the administration should have done a better job of consulting with the governors before issuing the budget and a new defense restructuring plan. "The main thing that's different as of today is that they realize that we have to be a partner in the discussion, that we could help them sell a program or we could be a force to reckon with to keep it from ever happening."
The governors said Rumsfeld and the military leaders told them that proposed restructuring will benefit many states. Under the plan, the Pentagon will reduce the number of National Guard units involved in heavy combat activities and increase Guard units devoted to engineering and policing. The Pentagon officials said those changes will make it less costly to reequip Guard units and will make the Guard a more useful force for dealing with natural disasters or homeland security issues.
Several governors said they regard the collision between the administration and the states as a misunderstanding. "If you ask me, this is a tempest in a teapot," said Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour (R). "There is less here than meets the eye."
But others said verbal assurances from the Pentagon will not suffice. "It's something that governors are going to be paying very, very, very close attention to, to make sure that those oral representations are adhered to," said Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano (D), the NGA vice chairman.
The governors have become increasingly outspoken about Guard issues, because of the substantial role that Guard units have played in Iraq. The long deployments have left some states stretched thin, causing the governors to worry about their capacity to deal with domestic disasters.
Beyond that, governors have become more intimately involved in the Guard's activities and with the problems of the families left at home. Governors often are among the first to learn of casualties among Guard members from their states, and many have been to Iraq recently on Pentagon-sponsored trips to meet with Guard members from their states.
Acutely aware of the dual role the Guard is now being asked to play, the governors reacted negatively to any suggestion of cutbacks, and their reaction appeared to catch the Pentagon by surprise. Pentagon officials have been doing damage control since, highlighted by Rumsfeld's extraordinary appearance yesterday at the NGA winter meeting.
"Every single governor feels so intertwined with their Guard during this war," said Michigan Gov. Jennifer M. Granholm (D), who is among those who have visited Iraq. "We all feel very connected with them and very protective of the Guard. You layer upon that the Katrina situation, and I just think that right now [governors are] especially sensitive to protecting our defense at home and military families."
Governors also remain wary about proposed restructuring of the National Guard, which Pentagon officials said would result in some states gaining strength and others losing strength. Kempthorne also said he has more questions about assurances for the replenishment of equipment and whether the money is available.