washingtonpost.com
Bush to Request Billions for Wars
Hill Democrats Express Skepticism

By Michael Abramowitz and Lori Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, February 3, 2007

President Bush will ask Congress for close to three-quarters of a trillion dollars in defense spending on Monday, including $245 billion to cover the cost of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan and other elements of the "global war on terror," senior administration officials said yesterday.

Democrats said the gigantic spending request will precipitate "sticker shock" on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers were already planning to scrutinize White House war-spending requests more zealously.

As expected, Bush will ask Congress for an additional $100 billion for Iraq and Afghanistan for the current fiscal year, to go with the $70 billion already approved. He will also seek an additional $145 billion for the wars in fiscal 2008, which begins Oct. 1, and administration officials warned that even more money probably will be needed.

Those totals come on top of regular spending for the Pentagon, which officials say will be $481 billion in 2008, a 10 percent increase over this year's budget.

If approved by Congress, the new war spending would bring the overall cost of fighting to about $745 billion since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States -- adjusting for inflation, more than was spent on the Vietnam War.

The administration has obtained most of the funding for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan through emergency or supplemental spending bills, which are not subject to the same level of congressional scrutiny as the regular budget. That practice has drawn sharp criticism from lawmakers and members of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group.

To answer those critics, White House budget officials say they will offer a much more detailed accounting of the costs of the war than they have previously provided, adding a special chapter to the thick budget books the president plans to send to Congress. But those details could be used by opponents of the war in arguing their case, according to lawmakers and other experts on Pentagon spending. Moreover, some war critics in Congress have served notice that they intend to use the spending bills containing the new money to try to bring the war in Iraq to a close.

"The defense budget request is the sleeper political issue of the year," said John J. Hamre, a former top Pentagon official who is chief executive of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "When you add the various supplemental requests to the baseline defense budget, you get an astounding number, a number easily exploited by political opponents."

Top House Democrats, gathered yesterday in Williamsburg for a retreat, sounded skeptical about the new defense numbers and said they will not give the president a blank check.

"This is a huge number," said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who noted that it includes an "opportunity cost" that would cut into Democrats' ability to fund domestic priorities.

"You can't help but note the irony: The president calls for us to rein in spending but sends us a budget for more than $700 billion in new spending," said House Budget Committee Chairman John M. Spratt Jr. (D-S.C.). "For Republicans who profess to oppose big spending, this will be a budget they will find hard to swallow."

Still, Spratt, Pelosi and other lawmakers did not rule out supporting the request. "We clearly want to make sure our troops have everything they need," said Rep. Nita M. Lowey (D-N.Y.), a member of the House Appropriations Committee.

Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) said in a statement that Democrats pledge to provide U.S. troops with "everything they need to do their jobs" but warned: "It is past time for the President to accurately and appropriately budget for this war and give the American people a full accounting of its true cost."

Though defense spending would see huge increases, the president's budget would allow a 1 percent increase for spending other than on defense, the first time in two years Bush has not sought cuts in government operations outside the Pentagon and homeland security.

Bush's budget also calls for slowing the rapid growth of Medicare, the federal health program for the elderly, by one percentage point. The president proposes to slice $66 billion over five years from previous projections by reducing payments to health-care providers such as hospitals and nursing homes and by charging wealthier seniors higher premiums for prescription-drug coverage.

The president wants to extend tax cuts that were enacted in 2001 and 2003 instead of letting them expire in 2010, as they are scheduled to do, and his budget would prevent the alternative minimum tax from expanding to ensnare millions of additional families next year. But after that, the president's budget would depend on billions of dollars in new revenue because of the rapid growth of the AMT.

That additional revenue -- along with projections for a healthy economy -- would allow Bush to keep his promise that the budget would be balanced by 2012, according to administration estimates, and that there would be a surplus, the first since Bush took office in 2001, despite a significant increase in military spending.

Since the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Congress has approved about $500 billion for military operations and terrorism-related activities, much of it appropriated as emergency spending. The Iraq Study Group, headed by former secretary of state James A. Baker III and former congressman Lee H. Hamilton, concluded in December that the public has not been "well-served" by that process and that the funds have received minimal scrutiny from either the White House or the Republican-controlled Congress.

Since Democrats took charge on Capitol Hill last month, they have promised to scrutinize the administration's spending requests more aggressively.

"We're going to be very focused in looking to see whether the funds are being spent wisely or simply going to fatten the pockets of big contractors like Halliburton," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.).

Vin Weber, a Republican strategist and former congressman, said he has long thought the coming defense bills would be among the most controversial facing the new Congress, which is now considering a nonbinding resolution to condemn Bush's decision to send more troops to Iraq.

Although some members have talked about tying the president's hands through the budget process, others are reluctant to try that for fear of being accused of not supporting the troops. If the situation in Iraq does not improve, however, many Democrats will be under pressure to restrict funding, Weber said.

Whatever happens on the battlefield, Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) predicted, the United States will be paying for the war for years to come.

"There's going to be real sticker shock when we get down to what the truth is about the cost of this war," he said. "It's going to be way beyond what anybody has fessed up to."

Washingtonpost.com staff writer Paul Kane contributed to this report.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company