Clinton asks Congress to authorize $6 billion for air war in Yugoslavia

Republicans expected to take opportunity to boost defense spending

War In Yugoslavia

April 20, 1999|By Jonathan Weisman and Karen Hosler | Jonathan Weisman and Karen Hosler,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- President Clinton formally asked Congress yesterday for more than $6 billion to pay for the air war over Yugoslavia, triggering what will likely be a divisive debate over defense spending and the combat readiness of a U.S. military that is deployed around the world.

The budget request would finance the cost of the air war, pay for humanitarian relief and help shore up the delicate economies and political systems of neighboring countries in the Balkan region, from Albania to Bulgaria.

"The need for funding is urgent, immediate, clearly in the national interest," Clinton declared. "There are literally lives hanging in the balance."

Seeing an opportunity to increase overall defense spending, Republican leaders declared the request wholly inadequate. Aides predicted that their leaders would expand the cost of the emergency budget bill to as much as $19 billion, all of which is likely to come from the projected $79 billion budget surplus.

"We must provide our troops with the necessary tools and training to defend American interests now and in the future," House Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois said in a statement.

Even Democrats on Capitol Hill saw Clinton's request more as an opening bargaining position than as a serious accounting of expected costs. A senior Democratic leadership aide in the Senate said $10 billion would be more realistic, especially considering that the White House request has left out money for ground troops, either for peacekeeping or for combat.

Still, administration officials insist they have erred on the side of asking for too much money. In the first 27 days of the campaign, U.S forces have spent $985 million, $698 million on munitions and $287 million on military operations above what the Pentagon would have spent on troops and training if there were no conflict in Kosovo.

In the next five months, assuming that airstrikes continue at current intensity, the administration expects to spend $4.1 billion on military operations. They attributed the far slower pace of spending to up-front costs borne in the first weeks of the conflict for transporting troops and equipment to the region and to the military's heavy use of "smart" weapons, such as cruise missiles that cost up to $1 million each.

As the air war in the Balkans proceeds, pilots will rely increasingly on cheaper laser-guided bombs and so-called "dumb" weapons, William J. Lynn III, the Pentagon's comptroller, said in explaining the administration's calculations.

Furthermore, the Clinton budget would fund the air war through Sept. 30, far longer than Pentagon planners hope will be necessary. If the campaign goes according to plan, administration officials say, the war should end long before that, leaving the remaining money to help fund peacekeeping, resettlement of refugees and rebuilding of the region.

The president's budget also includes $335 million for Defense Department humanitarian assistance, $386 million for humanitarian aid channeled through the State Department and $35 million for State Department operations.

There is $150 million in economic development assistance for the front-line states of Albania, Bosnia, Bulgaria, Croatia, Macedonia and Romania, states that have taken an "extraordinary drubbing" through four Balkans wars in the 1990s started in large part by Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, said Deputy Secretary of Defense Strobe Talbott.

In all, the United States will pay for one-fourth of the total cost of humanitarian assistance for the region, said Jack Lew, the White House budget director.

Administration officials implored Congress to approve the request quickly. If the money is not in hand by the first week of May, the Pentagon will face "a genuine readiness crisis," said Deputy Defense Secretary John J. Hamre.

Already, the Defense Department is spending money that was set aside for the last three months of the fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30. By May 1, Pentagon planners will begin considering whether to cancel exercises not connected to Kosovo.

White House aides sternly warned Republicans in Congress not to tie the Kosovo funding to a contentious debate over the appropriate level of funding needed to keep the military supplied and trained.

With emergency spending bills, "there is a temptation, which should be resisted, to try to do things that don't fit the category of emergency spending, that there isn't an urgent need for," said Clinton's spokesman, Joe Lockhart.

"This is about paying for the humanitarian and military operations in Kosovo, and we shouldn't let it get bogged down in trying to have another debate."

Virtually no one expects Congress to resist the temptation.

Even before the funding request reached Capitol Hill, lawmakers were letting their own funding priorities be known. Republicans in Congress hope to use the funding request to finance military programs they have sought for years.

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