A May 14 article on President Bush's request for a $25 billion "contingency fund" incorrectly said that Congress will have approved nearly $100 billion for the Iraq and Afghan wars if the request is approved. The correct figure is nearly $185 billion, according to congressional budget officials. (Published 5/15/04)
President Bush asked Congress yesterday to approve a new $25 billion "contingency fund" for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, but members of both parties in Congress indicated strong reservations about giving the Pentagon the free hand it is seeking to spend the money.
Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz, testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the open-ended request would give the Pentagon flexibility to deal with the highly fluid situation in Iraq, and was not meant to subvert Congress's constitutional mandate to give prior approval to spending.
But after military setbacks and recent allegations of Americans abusing Iraqi prisoners, key senators seemed far more reluctant to give the Pentagon free rein.
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) said that the administration was asking for a $25 billion "blank check," and added that she would not support it "without further specificity and a greater understanding of where we are getting" in Iraq. That view was echoed by Republican Sens. John McCain (Ariz.) and Susan Collins (Maine), who also called for tighter congressional oversight.
If the new request is granted, Congress will have approved nearly $100 billion to fight the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Almost all of that has been provided outside the annual Pentagon budget, through emergency appropriations that set up special accounts from which the military could draw money without seeking congressional approval.
The money now being sought would be in addition to the Pentagon's regular fiscal 2005 budget request of $401 billion. The administration is seeking approval to use the extra money to pay for military operations or classified programs. The president would be required to notify Congress of its plans at least five days in advance and to deem the spending to be for "emergency" needs.
But it was clear during more than three hours of senatorial grilling of Wolfowitz that lawmakers are increasingly concerned about the rising costs of the war and the way it is being financed.
"We need to find a way to act quickly to support our troops while still holding the executive branch accountable for how these funds will be used," said Sen. Carl M. Levin (Mich.), the panel's ranking Democrat.
House Appropriations Committee Chairman C. W. Bill Young (R-Fla.) has said he will seek "accountability" by the Pentagon.
Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee, indicated yesterday that he supports giving the administration flexibility to shift money within its budget, and indicated he would favor increasing the funding to as much as $50 billion, well above a limit set in a Senate budget proposal.
Responding to tough questions from senators in both parties, Wolfowitz acknowledged that, with war costs running about $4.6 billion a month, far more money will be needed next year than is now on the table. "There will be a request for a full year supplemental early next year. It will sure be much larger than $25 billion," he said.
Levin called the $25 billion figure "window dressing," and he accused the White House budget office of "fudging" in a letter to Congress saying the money would be used "should there be a need."
Driving up the costs of the war in Iraq is the fact that military commanders are keeping 135,000 to 138,000 troops there, about 20,000 more than anticipated.
Yesterday, several senators suggested that even this number might not be adequate to maintain stability, raising doubts about the Pentagon's most recent cost estimates.
On Wednesday, Sen. Ernest F. Hollings (D-S.C.) charged that commanders were afraid to ask for more troops, fearing that they would be "gone" if they diverged from the Bush administration line that force levels were adequate.
That theme was picked up yesterday by McCain, who said that he would support additional troops, but that the administration was seeking a "blank check."