Gates warns war bill delay could slow troops' training

House moves closer to passing measure linked to pullout of forces

March 23, 2007|By Noam N. Levey and Peter Spiegel | Noam N. Levey and Peter Spiegel,LOS ANGELES TIMES

Washington -- As House Democrats edged closer yesterday to securing the votes to pass a war funding bill that would compel the withdrawal of U.S. combat forces from Iraq, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates warned that the current troop buildup would be jeopardized by any delays in enacting the controversial bill.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, and her lieutenants appeared to make more progress in their drive to reach a majority as more of the war's staunchest opponents lined up behind the measure.

A Pelosi spokesman said President Bush would be to blame for any impact that delays in passing a bill would have on the military, saying the president had failed to adequately fund the war.

But the warning from Gates, who has largely stayed out of the political fray in his first three months at the Pentagon, threatened to upset the carefully crafted coalition of moderate and liberal Democrats that party leaders have been laboring to assemble behind the historic measure.

The House is scheduled to vote today.

In his assessment - delivered during a morning meeting with lawmakers and then repeated to reporters - Gates said failure to pass the $124 billion funding bill within the next three weeks might force the Army to slow the training of units deploying to Iraq and Afghanistan.

He also cautioned that further delay into mid-May could force the Army to extend the deployments of troops in war zones beyond their usual one-year tours, since replacement forces would not have enough money to complete their pre-combat training.

Gates declined to tell the Democrats what they should do, saying only, "I think it's my responsibility to let everybody involved in the debate know the impact of the timing of the decisions."

But the political brinkmanship of his remarks was clear.

One military official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity since he was not authorized to discuss the secretary's motivations, acknowledged that there was some politicking involved in the warning, noting that it was timed to come the day before the House is scheduled to vote.

As the House launched into a debate on its bill, the Senate Appropriations Committee approved its own version, which calls for the withdrawal of combat troops to begin within four months of the measure's enactment and to end by March 31, 2008.

Pelosi meanwhile huddled in the morning with leading members of the Out of Iraq Caucus, who have complained that the timelines in the House bill, which require a withdrawal no later than August 2008, are not aggressive enough. But after the meeting, it appeared likely that only a handful would hold out against the bill.

"There was some nervousness that many of us who hate this war and want to end the war ... may be playing into the president's hands and giving him the victory he wants" by opposing the bill, said Rep. Jim McGovern, a Massachusetts Democrat who attended the gathering.

McGovern, one of the most anti-war lawmakers in the House, spoke in favor of the bill as debate began on the measure.

Pelosi and her allies also tracked down wavering members around the Capitol. Yesterday afternoon, she and Rep. John P. Murtha of Pennsylvania, a leading architect of the Democratic withdrawal plan, cornered Rep. Lloyd Doggett, a Texas Democrat, on the House floor to drive home their argument to the liberal holdout.

Meanwhile, key centrist lawmakers cajoled skittish moderates worried about putting restrictions on what military commanders can do in Iraq.

Yesterday morning, some members of the New Democrat Coalition met to plot a final push to persuade wavering moderates to help reach the majority needed to win. "We will get 218 votes," declared Rep. Ellen O. Tauscher, a California Democrat who co-chairs the coalition and has been lobbying her colleagues for the measure.

Democratic leaders have promoted their legislation as an effort to save the military. And Murtha, a Marine veteran who fought in Vietnam, angrily accused the Bush administration of depriving troops of the training, equipment and rest they need.

"That's what hurts our troops," Murtha lectured Republicans on the floor of the House. "If you vote against this bill, you're voting against the resources they need."

Gates also suggested that failure to pass the war funding bill would hurt the military. But his warnings seemed directed at Democrats, who are pushing ahead with bills that the president has promised to veto, ensuring weeks of delays before a final bill passes.

Gates told a bipartisan House delegation yesterday morning that the Army does not have that long.

The Pentagon has received $50 billion in war funding for the current fiscal year, but the Bush administration has asked for $93.4 billion more to sustain current force levels through the end of the year.

Noam N. Levey and Peter Spiegel write for the Los Angeles Times.

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