Lawmakers demand war budget from Pentagon

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House appropriators say the Pentagon needs to come up with detailed plans for the war funding budget — and soon.

The Pentagon’s 2015 budget request included a $79.4 billion placeholder for the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) budget, which funds the war in Afghanistan.

Defense officials say the budget proposal included no details because the U.S. mission in Afghanistan in 2015 remains uncertain without a signed bilateral security agreement.

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But a placeholder isn't good enough, Defense Appropriations leaders told Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey at a hearing Thursday.

“This is a serious hole in your budget here,” said Appropriations Defense subcommittee Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-N.J.). 

“I know you want us to put a marker there, but ingrained in that sum of money, which some estimate perhaps would be $80 billion, is some open questions,” he said. “It's difficult for us to put a bill together with that issue open.”

The Afghanistan budget is an open question because the Obama administration has threatened to withdraw all U.S. troops at the end of 2014 if Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai does not sign a security pact to establish a long-term U.S. presence in Afghanistan.

Karzai has refused to sign the agreement ahead of his country’s presidential elections next month, and Obama administration officials have said they are looking to the next president to sign the pact.

“The obvious reason is that we held back was the uncertainty of what decision is going to be made about our future presence in Afghanistan post 2014,” Hagel said Thursday.

Rep. Pete Visclosky (D-Ind.), the top Democrat on the Defense panel, said he was concerned that the dispute in Afghanistan won’t be resolved by June, when the Defense Appropriations bill is expected to reach the House floor.

He noted that even if all U.S. troops departed Afghanistan at the end of 2014, the OCO budget would still require three months of funding for Afghanistan in the fiscal 2015 budget, which begins in October 2014.

"I think it's impossible for us to go to the floor with a place holder for $79 billion," Visclosky said.

Pentagon Comptroller Robert Hale said that the Pentagon was trying to develop options for Congress if the situation remains up in the air.

“When we get an enduring presence decision, as soon as we can after that, we will get a formal budget amendment to you for OCO,” Hale said.

“If that doesn't work with the timing issue, then we're going to have to look at other options, and we are thinking of them now, as to how we proceed if we don't get an enduring presence decision,” he said. “I know that's vague, but at the moment, I think it's about the best I can do.”

The Pentagon’s OCO budget, which funds the war in Afghanistan and counterterrorism operations, has been a target of Pentagon budget cutters in Congress.

The war funding is also important because it is not subject to the discretionary spending caps set by sequestration and last year’s budget deal.

The House voted last year to cut OCO funding by $3.5 billion after the Appropriations Committee included a higher amount than the Pentagon had requested. Those reductions were scaled back in the final 2014 omnibus spending bill.