Lawmakers seek details of Bush war-fund request

Members of both parties wary of giving up say on how $75 billion is spent

War In Iraq

March 28, 2003|By Julie Hirschfeld Davis | Julie Hirschfeld Davis,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Racing to provide nearly $75 billion President Bush says is needed quickly to pay for the war in Iraq, lawmakers in Congress are demanding more details from the administration about precisely how the money will be spent.

As the House and Senate began hearings yesterday on the $74.7 billion supplemental spending measure that Bush requested Tuesday, Republicans and Democrats alike raised grave concerns about handing over vast sums of federal money without details about where it will go.

They are balking at surrendering congressional oversight over the war to the Bush administration and seeking a stronger hand in the spending decisions that drive the military operation in Iraq, the reconstruction effort that will follow it and enhanced anti-terrorism efforts at home.

"I will support every dollar I can to help the troops and provide for their safety and to win the war, but to extend these limits to the extent that is being asked here - I think it's too much," said Sen. Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia, senior Democrat on the Appropriations Committee. "Count me out when you ask for this additional flexibility."

Republicans, too, are voicing concerns about the degree of flexibility Bush has requested, which House Majority Leader Tom DeLay predicted Tuesday would be "highly controversial."

"The idea of allowing the president to transfer funds from one account to another without further reference to the Congress of the United States is unacceptable," said Rep. Jim Kolbe, an Arizona Republican and the chairman of the appropriations panel that funds foreign operations. "I would not be surprised if those provisions changed."

April 11 deadline

Still, Congress has little time to strike the balance most lawmakers say they want between giving the Pentagon the resources it needs to wage the war and maintaining a congressional role in overseeing them. Congressional leaders aim to complete the measure, as Bush has requested, by April 11, when they are scheduled to depart for a two-week break.

Under the measure, which covers the next six months, the Pentagon could spend a $59.9 billion "defense emergency reserve fund" however it sees fit, without first consulting Congress. The proposed legislation also would change the regular 2003 defense spending measure, enacted last fall, to give the department broad discretion over about $5 billion more in its previously appropriated budget.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld told appropriators yesterday that the flexibility is critical to the Pentagon's ability to wage a war in which the length, the intensity of combat, the degree of destruction and the requirements for rebuilding are "not knowable."

The department needs "greater flexibility as to how that money is spent so we can adjust to the changing circumstances," Rumsfeld said. "With so many unknowns, the administration clearly needs some flexibility."

Bush also requested broad latitude for other federal agencies to decide how to spend $4.3 billion in homeland security resources, including $1.5 billion for the Department of Homeland Security and $500 million for the Justice Department.

"It's just stuck there in their counterterrorism account," said Sen. Judd Gregg, a New Hampshire Republican and the chairman of the appropriations subcommittee that funds the Justice Department. "I don't know where it's going, and I don't think they know where it's going. We need more clarity."

Questioning amount

Appropriators also are raising questions about whether the requests are sufficient to cover the war and its aftermath, along with stepped-up security at home. Yesterday, Rumsfeld would not rule out having to come back to Congress this year to ask for billions more.

"Is it going to prove out over the coming months?" Rumsfeld said of the $74.7 billion request. "I don't know. Do we believe it is the best possible estimate at the current time? Yes."

But many appropriators said the figures are far too low.

Kolbe noted the $2.53 billion allocated in the measure for relief and postwar reconstruction in Iraq. "It seems inconceivable to me that a country of this size, this scope, this infrastructure that the request would be sufficient," he said. "It's quite probable that there would be another supplemental," Kolbe added

Democrats are pushing to include more money in the spending bill for homeland security. Rep. David R. Obey, a Wisconsin Democrat, unveiled a comprehensive proposal yesterday to do so, calling for $8.2 billion more than the amount Bush requested, for a total of $12.3 billion.

Included in Obey's request is $1.2 billion for security upgrades at U.S. military installations and $5.5 billion for civilian needs, including upgrading security at the nation's infrastructure facilities, ports and nuclear sites, speeding up the installation of baggage-screening equipment and money for major metropolitan areas.

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