By Russell Berman and John T. Bennett - 03/21/11 11:40 PM EDT
U.S. military operations in Libya could wipe out a significant chunk of the budget cuts won by congressional Republicans in recent weeks, defense analysts say.
GOP leaders have trumpeted enacted spending reductions that amount to more than $285 million per day since the beginning of March.
In separate briefings on Monday, the Defense Department and the White House said they do not yet have a projected price tag for the military action that began on Saturday. Defense officials said they are still “collecting” and analyzing early costs.
With Congress determined to rein in federal spending, the cost of the U.S. intervention is sure to become a top concern on Capitol Hill.
The House Appropriations Committee already has asked the Pentagon “what the expectations and needs may be,” but officials have yet to receive a response, committee spokeswoman Jennifer Hing told The Hill.
A Senate Appropriations Committee aide reported on Monday: “No word from [Defense] as of today.”
“We are working on cost estimates,” Pentagon spokeswoman Cheryl Irwin said in a Monday e-mail. Pentagon officials are, for now, “cash flowing the Libyan operations out of funding available under the  continuing resolution,” she added.
Sen. Dick Lugar (Ind.), the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, called for “a full congressional debate on the objectives and costs” of the operations President Obama ordered.
“Congress has been squabbling for months over a budget to run the federal government for a fiscal year that is almost half over,” Lugar said in a statement Monday.
“We argue over where to cut $100 million here and there from programs many people like,” Lugar said. “So here comes an open-ended military action with no-end game envisioned.”
Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio), a chief liberal critic of the mission, suggested in television appearances on Monday that the military campaign could cost “half a billion dollars in the first week.”
Without providing specific estimates, the White House cited the expensive costs of the military operations as one factor in the drive to build a strong international coalition that can help pay the tab.
“It's important to have a model where the international community bears a cost … of these actions going forward, because the United States alone can't bear the burden of these costs over time,” Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser, told reporters traveling with Obama in South America.
As partner nations assume the lead in enforcing the no-fly zone over Libya, Rhodes said, “the cost of the United States will go down substantially.”
The president did not mention the budgetary impact of the military campaign in a letter he sent Monday to congressional leaders formally describing the mission in Libya. A spokesman for Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said he had not heard discussions about the cost of the mission or whether Republicans would seek additional offsetting budget cuts.
Republicans have used temporary spending bills to enact $10 billion in spending cuts over five weeks, which adds up to about $285 million a day.
The Center for a New American Security (CNAS), a Washington think tank, has estimated the Pentagon likely spent more than $81 million alone on the 110 Tomahawk missiles that were fired on the first day of the operation.
The opening of the operation likely will be the most expensive part, the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA), another think tank, said in a report released earlier this month.
A no-fly zone like the one military officials described Monday, covering just the northern portion of Libya, likely will cost between $30 million and $100 million per week, CSBA said. But because it required coalition forces to deal with Libyan air defense systems, there are one-time bills that could cost between $400 million and $800 million, the think tank concluded.
Defense officials are examining the costs of the Libyan operations and will determine “later this fiscal year what action might be necessary to cover those costs,” Irwin said.
Pentagon officials say it is too soon to even discuss other funding sources, such as a second 2011 emergency Defense spending bill designed exclusively for Libya.
The department likely will eventually send Congress a supplemental spending request to cover its Libya costs, said Gordon Adams, who oversaw defense budgeting at the Office of Management and Budget during the Clinton era.
“Yeah, sure it will come,” Adams said. “Any opportunity to raise money inside the Department of Defense will be seized.”
The Libya no-fly zone mission “could get to $1 [billion] or $1.5 billion, if it goes on for a year,” said Adams, now with American University and the Stimson Center.
The military maintained no-fly zones over southern and northern Iraq during Adams’s OMB tenure, and the Clinton administration paid for them with supplemental spending measures.
Adams said the “long poles in the tent” that will drive the total costs of the mission are the price of jet fuel and the duration of the campaign.
The Pentagon has flexibility within its operations and maintenance accounts to shift funds to pay for unplanned operations.
It is that “huge fungibility” within the operations and maintenance coffers that will keep the congressional budget stalemate from forcing Pentagon officials to seek a Libya supplemental sooner than if a 2011 defense appropriations bill had already been signed by the president, Adams said.
A senior Democratic aide on the House Appropriations Committee downplayed the possibility of a new supplemental spending bill. Citing the contingency funding already built into the Pentagon budget, the aide said the Libya operation “does not seem likely to require a supplemental.”
The Defense Department can also put off some planned activities and programs, allowing officials to funnel monies away to pay for Libyan operations, analysts said.
But there is a ticking budgetary clock.
“In March, [the department] won’t be worried about that — yet,” Adams said. “If we get to June, then yes, all bets would be off.”
—This post was updated at 8:10 p.m.