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$471 Billion, "War on Terror" Not Included

$471 Billion, "War on Terror" Not Included


By Maya Schenwar
t r u t h o u t | Report
http://www.truthout.org/docs_2006/110707A.shtml

In a closed session on Tuesday, a Congressional appropriations conference committee approved $471 billion in defense spending for 2008, a 9.5 percent increase over last year. Although a separate bill allocating war funds will probably follow soon, Democrats succeeded in keeping money specifically for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan out of this general defense appropriations bill.

Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) raised an amendment in conference to add a $70 billion "bridge fund" for the "war on terror" to the bill, but the proposal was defeated with a vote along party lines, according to Jesse Jacobs, press secretary for Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Robert Byrd (D-West Virginia).

"There is no new money for Iraq and Afghanistan," Jacobs said in an interview. "They will have to draw from what is already there."

The exclusion of the bridge fund marks a small victory for some antiwar Democrats, who say cutting off or redirecting funding is key to initiating a troop withdrawal.

However, the war spending debate is not over for the week: Democrats on both chambers' appropriations committees plan to propose a separate bridge fund of "less than $50 billion," according to House Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman John Murtha (D-Pennsylvania), as reported in Congress Daily. Murtha said Democrats opted to exclude the bridge fund from the general defense bill to avoid holding up that bill's passage with squabbling over Iraq. The stand-alone bridge fund bill is expected to hit the House floor as soon as Thursday.

In a statement on Tuesday afternoon, Senator Byrd, who has frequently spoken out against the administration's "blank checks" for war, indicated he would introduce the bridge fund to the Senate - with strings attached.

"I have crafted legislation that will provide the funding our troops need while at the same time sending a clear message to the president that we must transition the mission in Iraq to encourage Iraqis to take a much greater role in securing their future," Byrd said.

Until that legislation passes, Congress will fund the war through other mechanisms. A last-minute provision attached to Tuesday's defense bill, called a "continuing resolution," calls for all government departments to be funded at a steady rate until their respective appropriations bills pass. The resolution, which would expire December 14, would extend current levels of funding for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Measures like bridge funds and continuing resolutions give Congress members more time to hash out the Iraq debate, sustaining it in increments without signing on for another year, according to Steve Kosiak, vice president of Budget Studies at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

"There's not a lot of support for refusing any funding at all," Kosiak said in an interview. "A bridge fund says, 'we'll provide you a little funding to kick this debate a little further down the road.'"

One such small chunk of funding, tacked onto Tuesday's defense appropriations bill during conference, appropriates $11.6 billion to manufacture Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles (MRAPs), to be used eventually in Iraq and Afghanistan. This appropriation prompts the question of how much "further down the road" Congress is willing to kick troop withdrawal: The production of MRAPs is slow, and the vehicles approved in the 2008 budget may not make it to Iraq until more than a year from now.

Assuming even the most gradual reduction of troops in Iraq - for example, the plan laid out by General Petraeus in September - the amped-up production of MRAPs would exceed demand, according to an October report from the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. Also, according to the report, an influx of MRAPs would require additional troops due to "increased logistics support required to sustain the much greater rate of fuel consumption."

On top of the MRAP funds, the defense spending bill includes provisions to "grow the force," adding 7,000 new personnel to the Army, 5,000 to the Marines and 1,300 to the National Guard.

Having reached a precarious bipartisan consensus on the bill, Congressional leadership is anxious to make it law as soon as possible.

"I think it's extremely important that we don't wait until the last minute next week to take care of the defense appropriations bill and the continuing resolution," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) said on the Senate floor on Tuesday.

However, the bill provides $3.5 billion less in general funds than the president's original defense budget request, and leading Republicans are criticizing the cuts.

Sen. Trent Lott (R-Mississippi) expressed concern about the attachment of the continuing resolution to the defense appropriations bill, since the continuing resolution is seen as a must-pass measure. "Unless we can split those two, we don't get an opportunity to offer an amendment to make sure that our troops in the field have the money they need," Lott said.

However, of all the appropriations bills, the defense bill is likely one of the safest from President Bush's veto pen. In recent weeks, the president has only threatened to veto one provision of Congress's version of the bill - an amendment to cut funding for the National Security Personnel System - and that provision was removed in conference.

Kosiak notes that, though the parties may haggle endlessly on small differences, the amounts of money in question are almost negligible.

"Historically, the defense appropriations bill gets passed relatively early and relatively easily," Kosiak said, predicting the $3.5 billion discrepancy will not hold up passage of the bill. "Ultimately, the funding differences are not that great."

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Maya Schenwar is a reporter for Truthout.org.

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