Lawmakers advance annual Pentagon budget without money for Iraq and Afghanistan
WASHINGTON (AP) — House and Senate negotiators agreed Tuesday on a $460 billion Pentagon bill that bankrolls pricey weapons systems and bomb-resistant vehicles for troops, but does not pay for combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Republicans said the omission would impose an unnecessary strain on troops, but the Democratic majority said it wouldn’t leave the military in the lurch.
“We’ll take it step by step,” said Rep. John Murtha, chairman of the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee. “The public wants this war over.”
House Democrats said they were considering separate legislation that would allot some $50 billion in war spending. Murtha, D-Pa., said the measure also would likely impose restrictions on the money, such as demanding that troops leave Iraq sometime next year.
The money would be enough to keep the wars afloat for a few more months, providing only about a quarter of the $196 billion requested by President Bush.
The House planned to vote on the two bills on Thursday.
Debate comes as Congress remains deeply divided on the Iraq war. Noting a decline in enemy attacks, Republicans are optimistic that the war recently turned a corner and conditions will steadily improve before next year’s elections.
For their part, Democrats are struggling to fulfill an election mandate to end the war. They lack enough votes to overcome procedural hurdles in the Senate or override a presidential veto. And while they are united against the U.S. presence in Iraq, Democrats are split on whether to cut off money for combat as a means of forcing troop withdrawals.
By dividing the Pentagon’s budget in two — annual spending versus war money — Democrats will be able to vote against paying for an unpopular war and still say they support the troops, by agreeing to the military’s core budget.
The approach also puts Senate Republicans in a tough position. If the House passes a bill, as expected, that pays for the war but sets a timetable on troop withdrawal, Republicans will have to decide how far to go to oppose it. “I don’t think people will want to be in a position to filibuster money for the troops,” said Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Republicans said the Democratic-majority was playing a dangerous game.
“I do believe that Congress would break the Army if it refuses to fund the troops with what they need now,” said Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska, the top Republican on the Senate Defense Appropriations Subcommittee.
Stevens said the Army would run out of money by January unless Congress approved war spending. He suggested adding $70 billion to the bill for the wars, but Democrats, who control the panel, declined.
“This amendment would send to the president additional funding for his horrible, misguided war in Iraq without any congressional direction that he change course. No strings attached,” said Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee.
Since the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Congress has approved some $412 billion for the war there, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office. Most of the money has paid for military operations, while $25 billion went to diplomatic operations and foreign aid. About $19 billion has gone toward training Iraqi security forces.
While the Pentagon spending bill omits money for the war, it does include $11.6 billion for Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected Vehicles. MRAPs are being used by troops in Iraq to protect against improvised explosive devices buried beneath the roads.
The bill also funds the Pentagon’s major modernization programs, including $3.2 billion for 20 F-22 fighters and $3.4 billion for the Army’s Future Combat System.
Lawmakers boosted funding for several politically popular programs, including $900 million for defense health and $980 million for National Guard and Reserve equipment. A 3.5 percent pay raise for military personnel also was included, representing a half percent increase to the president’s request.
Appropriators also agreed to $8.6 billion to pay for Bush’s missile defense program. But the amount does not include $85 million requested by Bush to begin construction on interceptors in Poland as part of a European missile defense system, which has roiled relations with Russia.
Published in The Messenger 11,07.07