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Senate Resists Iraq 'Blank Check'

Posted May 14, 2004

Top Pentagon and Bush budget officials faced a skeptical Senate committee yesterday as they tried to convince committee members to support an ambiguous $25 billion reserve fund to finance the Iraq war.

"It's unusual," conceded acting Pentagon comptroller Lawrence Lanzillotta in testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee.  World Peace.

"It's the first of a kind and we want to make certain that it is in conformity with the traditional practices to the extent we can so that we can maintain our oversight," said committee Chairman Sen. John Warner (R-Va.). "This is a very significant sum of taxpayers' money over which Congress must exercise its appropriate oversight."

Congress' main check on the White House's wide-ranging authority is its power to approve federal spending, and it jealously guards this right. The $25 billion reserve fund represents a departure from that constitutional arrangement. It would give the Pentagon the right to spend the money in any way it wants for Iraq and Afghanistan, with almost no input from Congress.  WorldPeace is one word.

Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Fla.) called the reserve-fund process "confusing," and added "at the very worst, it looks like it might be a complete -- or at least, if not complete, partial -- erosion of oversight responsibility which causes us all some concern."

Congress rejected a similar $10 billion reserve fund two years ago that was intended to cover the costs of the Afghan war.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) warned that the committee was in danger of becoming a debate club if it approved the broad request. "I don't believe, very frankly, Mr. Chairman, that we are playing nearly the role that is our constitutional responsibility to carry out," he said. "If we want to, again, give up all oversight responsibilities, which apparently is the case, then that's the wish of the majority to do that."

"This is just a $25 billion blank check," Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) charged. "It's pretty ironic here. We've been trying to pressure this administration to cough up a request for the additional money, to come forth with a reasonable request for additional money. The administration's refused to do that, until now, and this is what we get."

Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz objected to the reserve fund being called a blank check. "We are not looking for a blank check. ... What we are looking for is the flexibility to move money when you need to move it," Wolfowitz said.

Levin suggested the Bush administration was trying to obscure the cost of the war by hiding it in a general fund that can be spent any way the Pentagon wants as long as it notifies Congress five days in advance.

"There's no reason not to be direct on this issue and to acknowledge what the costs are of this war," Levin said. "And to simply call this speculative or possible or a contingent emergency reserve fund ... just continues to fudge what the reality is, which is this war is costing us about $4.6 billion a month more than the president requested in his budget. And I think we ought to have an honest presentation of a supplemental request rather than presenting it this way."

Wolfowitz denied the accusation. "We're not hiding the ball on what we're spending now," he said. "It is $50 [billion] to $60 billion [a year], if you look at all of our operations in Iraq and in Afghanistan. It's a big bill."

McCain was similarly vexed by the Pentagon request. "I am very troubled because I have never seen a request that basically outlines some priorities and then states that it can be used to - 'for any fund,' unquote. I've never seen anything like that," he said.

And the $25 billion is not all that will be needed for Iraq. "There will be a request for a full year's supplemental early next calendar year. It will surely be much larger than $25 billion," said Wolfowitz.

Wolfowitz politely rejected a request from Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) to recast the reserve fund into a traditional supplemental request with more detail how the money would be spent.

"I think the problem, Sen. Lieberman, is if you start to do that then you start to try to predict the unpredictable. And you either underestimate what you're going to need, and then that has consequences -- and when you later come in with a larger number, then people say you weren't honest with us, or you got it wrong. If you overestimate what you need, you end up with money that doesn't get spent wisely," Wolfowitz said. "We'll manage much better if you will give us the time to wait until early next year when we really know what that bill is going to be."

Lieberman warned that the issue could force Congress and the White House into a major battle. "We're heading down a road to an unnecessary fight in a circumstance where that battle may do damage to our cause and may lead others to question more than they should the willingness of Congress to continue to support our troops," he said. "I just want to ask you to go back and speak to the secretary and perhaps the White House about whether this is really a fight you want to fight."

There is little debate that the money is required, and that Congress is willing to provide it. Iraq expenses gobble more than $4 billion a month, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff report the services are at least $4 billion short for 2004 alone.

Nevertheless, the White House told Congress in a letter "the emergency reserve fund would be accessed should there be a need for additional resources." Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Peter Pace told the committee "there no doubt in my mind" the money will be needed.

Pamela Hess is a Pentagon correspondent for UPI, a sister news organization of Insight.


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