By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 23, 2007
President Bush challenged Congress to another clash over the direction of the Iraq war yesterday as he asked lawmakers for $46 billion more to pay for overseas military operations and insisted that they approve it by the end of the year.
The president's war funding plan revived the political struggle over Iraq that has grown somewhat dormant in Washington over the past month. Democrats vowed not to rubber-stamp the request and indicated that they will disregard Bush's holiday deadline, holding off any action until next year as they debate a new strategy to counter his leadership on the war.
The latest spending proposal brings the total current fiscal year request for Iraq, Afghanistan and counterterrorism operations to $196.4 billion, by far the largest annual tally since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. If approved by Congress in its entirety, it would bring the total appropriated since then to more than $800 billion. At their current rate, war appropriations could reach $1 trillion by the time Bush leaves office, a total that by some measures would exceed the cost of the Korean and Vietnam wars combined.
The Democrats who won control of Congress last year on the back of public opposition to the Iraq war instantly denounced Bush's spending plan and ridiculed him for seeking so much for the conflicts after vetoing the expansion of a children's health insurance program just weeks earlier. But Bush's proposal will force Democrats to confront the politically volatile choice of again following his lead or refusing to provide everything he wants.
What's more, the debate may play out just as the presidential nominating campaigns reach their climax. Although Bush wants the spending approved within two months, Democrats said the military does not need the money until early February, and they do not anticipate acting until early next year. Presidential voting begins with Iowa caucuses on Jan. 3 and the nominations could be sealed when voters in about 22 states cast ballots Feb. 5.
The rhetoric from both sides yesterday evoked the fiery debate over the last war funding bill this spring, with the president suggesting that critics do not support the troops and Democrats accusing him of fiscal recklessness on behalf of a losing cause.
"Our men and women on the front lines should not be caught in the middle of partisan disagreements in Washington, D.C.," Bush said at the White House, flanked by veterans and the family of a slain Marine. "I often hear that war critics oppose my decisions, but still support the troops. Well, I'll take them at their word -- and this is the chance to show it."
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) derided the war funding bill as an example of "misplaced priorities," pointing to Bush's veto of a five-year, $35 billion expansion of a children's health program. "For the cost of less than 40 days in Iraq, we could provide health-care coverage to 10 million children for an entire year," she said.
Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) echoed that line of attack on Bush. "He repeatedly says no to health care, no to law enforcement, no to homeland security, no to stronger infrastructure," Reid said at a news conference. "But he says yes to this intractable civil war in Iraq, which is being paid for by borrowed money."
White House spokesman Tony Fratto rejected the comparison with the State Children's Health Insurance Program, saying Bush wants only to make sure it focuses on poorer children and the vetoed bill would have covered families with too much income. "The president has said that the policy is wrong," Fratto said. "He didn't say that it's too expensive."
The spending fight will test Democrats, who so far have been frustrated in their efforts to force Bush to change direction in Iraq. The most powerful means in the hands of Congress is the power of the purse, but so far Democrats have been unwilling to refuse the president any money for the war. When they attached a U.S. troop withdrawal timetable to the war funding bill in the spring, Bush vetoed it and Congress ended up sending him the money without major conditions.
Since that strategy failed, antiwar leaders have pressed Democratic leaders to refuse to give Bush the money he needs to wage war, or at least cut it. In the end, though, that may depend on congressional Republicans. A senior Democratic leadership aide predicted that even Bush's party would not support the full $196.4 billon. "You're not gonna find very many Republicans willing to go to the mat over this," the aide said by e-mail. "In the end, the president is not going to get everything that he wants."
Most Americans oppose funding Bush's full war request, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll last month. Just a quarter of those surveyed supported the president's full spending plan, as it was then projected, and seven in 10 wanted it reduced. About 46 percent wanted it cut sharply or altogether.
The $45.9 billion Bush asked for yesterday comes on top of $150.5 billion already requested for the 2008 fiscal year that started Oct. 1. If passed, it would put the total cost of Iraq, Afghanistan and counterterrorism operations at $806 billion, more than any single U.S. conflict since World War II. A study by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments last month said that in today's dollars the Persian Gulf war of 1991 cost $88 billion, the Korean War cost $456 billion and Vietnam cost $518 billion.
"We're clearly not at the end of this," said Steven M. Kosiak, the study's author. "This is going to be going on at least through this administration," he added, and "the war costs are likely to be with us even if we do pull out of Iraq soon."
A Congressional Research Service report in July estimated that the total cost of Iraq, Afghanistan and other operations over the next 10 years could reach $1.45 trillion, even assuming the number of U.S. troops in Iraq is cut in half by 2013.
The difference is that national defense today represents a smaller burden on the U.S. economy, roughly 4.2 percent of gross domestic product this year, compared with 9.4 percent at the peak of Vietnam and 14.2 percent at the peak of the Korean War, Kosiak's report said.
Bush's spending request yesterday included $42.3 billion more for the Pentagon and $3.6 billion for the State Department. It would pay for day-to-day costs of the wars, including everything from bullets to body armor, as well as for training of Iraqi troops, embassy programs and intelligence operations. It also would pay for treatment of injured soldiers, equipment repairs and relief for Iraqi refugees.
The administration also tucked in money for priorities not directly related to Iraq or Afghanistan, such as funds for the Palestinian Authority, U.N. peacekeeping in Darfur, emergency food aid for Africa, counternarcotics aid for Mexico and Central America and heavy fuel oil for North Korea as part of a deal to dismantle its nuclear programs.