President Bush and Congress are headed toward another showdown on war spending, this time sparring over nearly $190 billion the Pentagon said is needed to keep combat in Iraq afloat for another year.
Sen. Robert Byrd, chairman of the Appropriations Committee, vowed Wednesday not to “rubber stamp” the request and said it was time to put Bush’s policies in check.
“We cannot create a democracy at the point of a gun,” said Byrd, D-W.Va., whose speech during a Senate hearing on the spending request were interrupted several times by cheers of anti-war protesters.
“Sending more guns does not change that reality,” Byrd said.
The tough rhetoric was reminiscent of last spring, when Congress passed and Bush vetoed a bill funding the war through September but ordering troop withdrawals to begin by Oct. 1. Supporters lacked the two-thirds majority needed to override a presidential veto.
If approved, Congress would have appropriated more than $760 billion for the two wars, having already approved of $450 billion for Iraq and $127 billion for Afghanistan.
Source of friction
Testifying before Byrd’s panel, Defense Secretary Robert Gates acknowledged that America’s “difficult choices” on the war “will continue to be a source of friction within the Congress, between the Congress and the president and in the wider public debate.”
But Gates said he hoped Congress would approve money that is needed by the troops.
“Under some of the most trying conditions, they have done far more than what was asked of them, and far more than what was expected,” he said.
Gates asked Congress to add $42 billion to the $147 billion already requested for the military. The money would pay for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in the 2008 budget year, which begins Monday.
Gates said the extra money was necessary to buy vehicles that can protect troops against roadside bombs, refurbish equipment worn down by combat and consolidate U.S. bases in Iraq.
More specifically, the request includes another $11 billion for 7,000 Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles. This is in addition to the 8,000 MRAP vehicles already planned for fielding.
Congress has not yet approved the money but was on track this week to pass a stopgap spending bill that would keep the war afloat for several more weeks. This gives Democrats, divided on whether to cut off money for the war, time to figure out their next step.
Since Gen. David Petraeus, the U.S. commander in Iraq, testified this month, Republicans have said they are willing to give his strategy more time to work. GOP members have blocked Democratic bills ordering troops home.
Nonbinding Iraq bill passed
On Wednesday, the Senate passed its first war-related bill in months: a nonbinding measure suggesting Baghdad limit the power of its federal government and give more control to Iraq’s ethnically divided regions.
The White House said it wasn't bothered by the 75-23 vote because the resolution made clear Bush should press for a new governing system only if the Iraqis want it.
During the hearing, Democrats and Republicans alike asked Gates whether more could be done to hasten political progress.
“I think the message has been sent to the Iraqi government that our military presence is going to — has begun to — shrink in Iraq, and the expectation of the commander in the field is that it will continue to shrink,” he said.
The State Department has requested $3.3 billion for war-related operations in 2008, a figure expected to increase slightly although no details were available on Wednesday.
Deputy State Secretary John Negroponte told the Senate panel said that several unforeseen costs have emerged, including an increased need for aid for the Palestinian Authority.
In a separate hearing Wednesday, Army Chief of Staff Gen. George Casey told a House panel that he was not comfortable with the Army’s level of readiness if a new threat emerged.
“I am not comfortable that we could respond as rapidly as we would like to. It would take us time to reverse directions,” Casey said.