Gates riles Budget panel

Senate Budget Committee leaders yesterday gave Defense Secretary Robert Gates until the end of the month to testify on inconsistent cost estimates for the troop “surge” in Iraq.

Senate Budget Committee leaders yesterday gave Defense Secretary Robert Gates until the end of the month to testify on inconsistent cost estimates for the troop “surge” in Iraq.

They set the deadline amid anger among Democrats that Gates cancelled a planned appearance at next Thursday’s hearing on the defense budget and offered to send another Pentagon official instead.

Senators had thought Gates would become the first Pentagon chief to testify before the panel since the war began and would make good on a vow he made to Budget Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) before his confirmation.

Conrad and Sen. Judd Gregg (N.H.), the panel’s ranking Republican, wrote to Gates yesterday urging him to reschedule by March 1.

Gates’s decision not to appear comes less than a week after the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) alarmed lawmakers by projecting that the president’s plan to increase troop numbers in Iraq could cost more than four times the $5.6 billion promised by the Bush administration.

“People deserve to hear from the secretary of defense on how he squares the dramatic differences in these estimates,” Conrad said in an interview, adding, “He told me in the confirmation process that he would come; now this news comes out and suddenly he’s unavailable.”

Lt. Col. Brian Maka, a Department of Defense (DoD) spokesman, offered a different version of events, stating that Deputy Secretary Gordon England had been scheduled to testify at Senate Budget, as he already has done at the House Budget Committee.

In addition to the CBO’s cost estimate for the “surge,” which Gates disputed on Friday, Conrad and Gregg are concerned about the White House’s $623 billion 2008 defense budget. Though the White House agreed recently to bipartisan requests to include war costs in the annual budget, the 2008 request continues to treat Iraq costs as emergency expenses that have no effect on deficit projections.

The emergency tag is “unacceptable,” Gregg said at Tuesday’s budget hearing when news began circulating that Gates would not appear. “It is very clear, after five years of war, that it is not an emergency, that it is something that we have to do.”

Gregg does not think Iraq costs should be included in the annual budget, preferring to consider war spending as a “sidecar” measure that would travel through regular committee order.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), a Budget panel member, said Gates’s decision not to appear reflected the administration’s “contempt for Congress.”

“It’s literally beyond comprehension,” Sanders said. “If they refuse to have the Secretary or staff come to defend their request, I will assume their figures are inaccurate and inflated and I will act accordingly.”

Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), another panel member, lambasted Gates’s absence late Tuesday. “We spend over $8 billion dollars a month, $2 billion a week, $280 million every day, and $11.5 million an hour in Iraq. And to think we can’t get the Secretary of Defense to come before the Senate Budget Committee to justify it,” Menendez said in a statement. “That’s outrageous.”

Since Jan. 10, when Bush released his plan to increase troop levels in Iraq, Gates has testified for hours at the House and Senate Armed Services committees. The White House has also reached out to senators to head off votes on resolutions critical of the president, a marked change from past complaints from both sides of the aisle that the administration was standoffish with Congress.

Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), who is not a member of Budget, remarked that Gates “probably feels he’s testified before enough committees.”

Yet Conrad and Gregg were undaunted. In their letter they wrote, “The committee scheduled its hearing on the defense budget for February 15 at the request of your office in order to accommodate your schedule.”

Gregg has splintered Democratic efforts to begin debate on a nonbinding Iraq resolution, offering a controversial amendment that would prevent funds being cut off from troops in the field. But he expressed sympathy Tuesday for Conrad’s efforts to schedule a Gates appearance.