By Jonathan Weisman and Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, November 21, 2007
The Defense Department warned yesterday that as many as 200,000 contractors and civilian employees will begin receiving layoff warnings by Christmas unless Congress acts on President Bush's $196 billion war request, but senior Democrats said no war funds will be approved until Bush accepts a shift in his Iraq policy.
Skirmishing over war funding has continued for nearly a year, but the White House and Congress appear ready to push toward a showdown in the coming weeks. Democratic leaders are convinced that Congress's abysmal approval ratings stem in large part from its inability to force Bush to change his approach in Iraq. But with violence declining in Iraq, Republicans believe they are in an even stronger position to stay the course.
White House and Pentagon officials stress that further delays are already slowing the development of countermeasures for roadside bombs and raising the imminent prospect of idle military maintenance depots, canceled training exercises and shuttered facilities at military bases.
"We are calling on Congress and the Democrats in Congress to send the president supplemental war funding without arbitrary surrender dates and without micromanaging the war before they leave for their next vacation," White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said.
"It's an extraordinarily desperate situation," Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said.
Democrats said the remarks are hyperbolic propaganda driven by politics, not policy.
Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.), chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee that controls defense funding, said the country owes troops "more than just a debt of gratitude. We owe them and their families a new way, a way that leads home."
Now that Congress has approved a huge base budget for the Pentagon of $459 billion, from which funds can be shifted for various needs, Democrats can rightfully assert that there is no immediate funding crisis, said Cindy Williams, a former head of the Congressional Budget Office's national security division. The Pentagon can borrow billions of dollars slated to be spent at the end of the current fiscal year to pay for operations now, she said.
But with the cost of the Iraq war soaring, fund transfers this winter could be huge, and disruptions would be inevitable. With Democrats saying that future funds will have policy strings attached, "both sides are playing a big game of chicken here," she said.
The House last week approved a $50 billion "bridge" to finance the war through the winter, legislation that would require troop withdrawals to begin almost immediately, with a goal of December 2008 for an end to combat operations. Troops could remain to protect U.S. facilities, train Iraqi forces and counter terrorism. The measure also stipulates that only fully trained troops could be deployed to Iraq.
The bill was blocked Friday by a Senate Republican filibuster.
"The money has already been provided by the House of Representatives. If the president wants that $50 billion released, all he has to do is call the Senate Republican leader, Mitch McConnell, and ask him to stop blocking it," said House Appropriations Committee Chairman David R. Obey (D-Wis.). House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) also blamed Republicans for any lack of money for the war.
Murtha has led the charge before. Two years ago he called for a complete troop withdrawal in six months, and in February he proposed a plan to fund the war but to attach so many strings to troop deployments that troop levels would have to be lowered. Most recently, he offered a plan to fund the war with a surtax. Each time, he has failed.
The administration showed no sign of bending to the Democrats' latest demands.
"It is best for our troops in harm's way to be funded without strings, to be funded free of whatever policy restrictions Congress wishes to impose," Morrell said.
The Pentagon yesterday proposed shifting $3.7 billion from Navy and Air Force payrolls and $800 million from capital funds to bolster depleted Army and Marine Corps budgets and sustain roadside-bomb defense operations. But that sum would keep the Army afloat only through mid-February and the Marines through mid-March, Morrell said.
This spring, the Pentagon voiced alarm about troop funding but did not raise the possibility of large-scale layoffs of civilians and contractors. Morrell said that a $70 billion bridge fund existed then and the political climate was different.
"It's not at all clear that the Congress is prepared to pass a supplemental," Morrell said. "We find ourselves in a more precarious situation."
The Pentagon, therefore, has started planning for the possibility that the Army and the Marine Corps will exhaust their operations and maintenance budgets. In the past two weeks, those budgets have been used to fund the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which cost about $10.5 billion a month.
Under current budget rules, the Defense Department can shuffle only $3.7 billion a year without seeking congressional approval. Morrell said that shows the department has already exhausted its options, but Democratic congressional aides said that a request from the Pentagon for additional transfer authority would almost certainly be approved. The goal, said one leadership aide, is to keep the administration on a short leash.
"We could ask Congress to reprogram," Morrell said, "but all that would do would delay the pain a little longer. . . . Going up to ask permission to reprogram would buy you a week or two at a time."