McCain balks at war-funding 'runaround'

Defense lobbyists are buoyed with President Bush’s new budget request, but it is already attracting criticism from a powerful Republican senator.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), vice chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, accused the Bush administration yesterday of going around congressional authorizers to secure so-called “emergency funding.”

At a hearing yesterday, McCain expressed his frustration with Donald Rumsfeld, the latest criticism the senator has directed toward Bush’s secretary of defense.

“This year you are submitting the seventh emergency supplemental of some $50 billion coming to a total of some $400 billion in the last four years,” McCain said. “I do not know how you call it an emergency anymore when you know you are going to have costs associated with the Iraq war.”

The Bush administration is expected to ask appropriators for a $70 billion supplemental appropriation for 2006, on top of $50 billion already approved.

“Your requests have got to be included in the normal budget process,” McCain said.

He called the administration’s handling of funding requests a “runaround” of the authorization process. He added that in the 2006 defense appropriations bill, he counted $500 million in unauthorized earmarks.

“It has got to stop,” McCain said.

The ranking Democrat on the committee, Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), also criticized the Pentagon’s budget proposal.

“Responsible budgeting means making choices and setting priorities. This budget request fails that test,” he said. “It understates the true cost of our defense programs because it does not fully recognize or pay for the cost of ongoing operations in Iraq and Afghanistan in 2007.”

“Members of this committee do not operate in a vacuum,” McCain said, noting that lawmakers are aware of the strain on the Army and the Marine Corps because of repeated deployments to Iraq. A larger Army and a larger Marine Corps would have relieved those strains, he said.

“I understand the problems for the authorizing committees,” Rumsfeld said. Once the costs for the war in Iraq are built into the supplemental, the decision goes to the appropriators, Rumsfeld added.

“Maybe they can change the rules in the Congress where the authorizing committees can look at supplementals,” he suggested.

Rumsfeld said he can go about funding the war “either way,” meaning he would feel comfortable with funding the war through the regular budget or through supplemental funding. He recalled that a couple years ago Congress rejected the Pentagon’s idea to include funding for Afghanistan in the budget.

The defense industry, while pleased with Bush’s request, is well aware that Congress will make significant changes to it.

If lawmakers do not approve the Defense Department’s proposed cost-trimming plans, then savings will have to be found somewhere else, most likely procurement and modernization plans, said several defense lobbyists.

That is when the defense industry is going to bring up its battle plan to ensure that programs such as the Army’s Future Combat Systems, the Air Force’s F-22 and Joint Strike Fighter programs, unmanned aircraft, and the Navy’s next-generation destroyers do not take a hit.

“Members will have questions about the force structure for sure,” a congressional source said. “Healthcare for active force, reserves, National Guard and retired service members will also be a big issue this year.”

“We will be watching with interest as the budget debate” picks up, said Dan Beck, a Boeing spokesman. “It may not be looking anything like it does now, after Congress has its say on it.”

The proposed changes in personnel and healthcare will resonate with military associations that are expected to launch a battle to prevent cuts.

In the fiscal year 2007 budget request of $439.3 billion for defense, the Army included $5.3 billion for its 330,000 existing National Guard members — 17,000 fewer than authorized by Congress. Army Chief of Staff Gen. Peter Schoomaker said Monday that the Army is not cutting the National Guard but is “restructuring and rebalancing” the force.

Meanwhile, the Air Force wants to trim its personnel by 16,100 in 2007.

Because of rapidly rising healthcare costs, the Pentagon has put together a plan to increase the amount retirees under the age of 65 would pay for the military’s Tricare program. Expanding the benefits of the healthcare program has been one of the most intense battles of the defense authorization and appropriations process.

But the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Marine Corps Gen. Peter Pace, made sure to emphasize the importance of the rise in healthcare costs for retirees under the age of 65 by appealing to the Senate Armed Services Committee to change the cost-share amount Congress established in 1995.