Congress unlikely to send Bush war money until early next year as Senate readies vote

Published 4:39 pm Friday, November 16, 2007

Senate Democrats said Friday that money for the Iraq war should be tied to troop withdrawals because the Baghdad government has not taken advantage of the security provided by U.S. forces.

“We have done our part,” said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash. “The Iraqi government has not done its part.”

“And in the meantime, while more than 150,000 of our troops have been policing a civil war in Iraq, we have become more vulnerable overseas,” she said.

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The Senate was voting Friday on a $50 billion bill that would pay for combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan — about one-fourth of the amount that President Bush has requested — but which would also require that troops start coming home. The measure sets a goal of ending combat by Dec. 15, 2008.

The House passed the measure, 218-203, on Wednesday.

The Senate also planned to vote on a proposal by Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, that would give the military $70 billion without strings attached.

Neither measure was expected to reach the 60-vote threshold needed to advance.

Democrats said this week that if Congress cannot pass legislation that ties war money to troop withdrawals, they would not send Bush a bill.

Instead, they would revisit the issue upon returning in January, pushing the Pentagon to the brink of an accounting nightmare and deepening Democrats’ conflict with the White House on the war.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said Republicans will be responsible for not passing war money by Christmas.

“The president, refusing to be held accountable for his disastrous war policy, is threatening to reject both our reasonable approach and that money, leaving our military empty-handed,” Reid said in a statement on Thursday.

In the meantime, Democrats say, the Pentagon can eat into its $471 billion annual budget without being forced to take drastic steps.

“The days of a free lunch are over,” said Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates said that unless Congress passes funding for the war within days, he will direct the Army and Marine Corps to begin developing plans to lay off employees and terminate contracts early next year.

Gates, who met with lawmakers on Wednesday, said he does not have the money or the flexibility to move funds around to adequately cover the costs of the continuing operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“There is a misperception that this department can continue funding our troops in the field for an indefinite period of time through accounting maneuvers, that we can shuffle money around the department. This is a serious misconception,” Gates told reporters at the Pentagon.

As a result, he said he is faced with the undesirable task of preparing to cease operations at Army bases by mid-February, and lay off about 100,000 defense department employees and an equal number of civilian contractors. A month later, he said, similar moves would have to be made by the Marines.

Some members of Congress believe the Pentagon can switch enough money to cover the war accounts, Gates said. He added that he only has the flexibility to transfer about $3.7 billion, which is just one week’s worth of war expenses. Lawmakers, he said, may not understand how complicated and restrictive the situation is.

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