Senators fear deficit focus will be roadblock to approval of Iraq funds

Some senators are worried that lawmakers will not go along with an increase to the State Department budget to pay for reconstruction efforts in Iraq given the renewed focus on cutting federal spending. 

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said he sees an uphill fight to garner congressional support for America’s activities in Iraq, which will shift at year’s end from one led by U.S. troops to one run by diplomats and private contractors. 

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McCain, the ranking member on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said increasing the State Department budget by billions would likely be a tough sell on the Hill as Congress grapples with the federal deficit.

Fellow panel member Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) said a failure by lawmakers to give the State Department the funds it will need “would be a tragedy.”

“If we don’t sustain the progress that has been made, then we will have invested blood and lives in an effort that could be frustrated,” Reed said.

The State Department likely will seek more than $5 billion just for Iraq-related activities, including reconstruction projects and security expenses.

“It probably will be the largest project in the State Department’s [2012] budget,” James Jeffrey, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, told the panel.

That amount, however, will be “double” what Foggy Bottom is now spending each year in Iraq, leaving questions about whether deficit-focused lawmakers will sign on.

Jeffrey said the increase would pay for thousands of additional private contractors that are needed to assume tasks now being done by the U.S. military — namely, securing U.S. government facilities and personnel.

The senators' worries come months after the Senate Foreign Relations Committee proposed slashing the State Department’s $58.5 billion foreign affairs spending request by $4 billion. Senior State Department officials resisted, noting an increase proposed last year was for mounting Iraq and Afghanistan expenditures.

Now, U.S. officials are portraying the coming shift of control from the military to the State Department as a bargain for U.S. taxpayers. 

They say the military would spend about $72 billion there this year, adding that the coming transition will save Washington more than $65 billion annually.

The Senate Foreign Relations and House Foreign Affairs committees will first be charged with assessing the coming State Department funding increase.

John Kerry (D-Mass.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said Tuesday he is exploring a stand-alone funding bill to pay for civilian-led Iraq functions.

The possible spending package envisioned by Kerry likely would be advanced separate from annual State Department spending legislation, Kerry told The Hill.  

“It couldn't possibly be inside the regular budget," Kerry said. “It would have to be a creative approach.”

Almost all military war and reconstruction operations have been funded through emergency spending measures outside the annual Pentagon budget.

Some Republican and Democratic lawmakers disagree over the timing of the military-to-civilian change, with several GOP panel members pressing Jeffrey and Army Gen. Lloyd Austin about whether U.S. troops will still be needed there for some time.

Republican senators like Lindsey Graham (S.C.) feel some number of American soldiers should remain in Iraq to protect U.S. diplomatic personnel and facilities.

Austin, the U.S. commander in Iraq, said that while he feels the military would be superior to State Department and private sector security personnel, the latter mix will be “adequate.”

While several Republicans suggested that level of safeguarding would not be acceptable, Democrats like Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) pushed back.

“It’s not about doing it better,” Nelson said. “It’s about doing it adequately.”