DOD officials defend $60B wartime request

Pentagon officials defended their request for $60 billion in war funds before the House Budget Committee on Thursday as lawmakers accused them of trying to avoid budget caps and congressional scrutiny.

The Pentagon is requesting the money for its fiscal 2015 wartime budget, the overseas contingency operations fund (OCO), but only $11 billion of the total would go toward U.S. operations in Afghanistan, which are being wound down.

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Lawmakers have accused the administration of seeking a "slush fund" to shift non-war expenses from the base budget into the wartime account. Defense officials said that most of the money — $53.7 billion — would go to operations outside of Afghanistan but in support of the mission in the region.

Adm. James "Sandy" Winnefeld, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said once the Afghan War ends it would be difficult to continue paying for support operations in the Middle East through the base budget because of defense caps. That would include aircraft carrier operations in the region to deter Iran.

"Something's got to give," he said. 

Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work testified that the requested funds for support operations in the Middle East had been approved in prior years through OCO spending.

"It was a lot looser in the start of the war," he said.

The Pentagon request, though, has sparked anger from both sides of the aisle.

Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), said Pentagon officials should not use the fund, intended to pay for Iraq and Afghan war operations, "to pay for long-term needs." 

"It's unbelievable that Democrats and Republicans are sitting here on the same sheet of paper," said Rep. James McDermott (D-Wash.). 

Lawmakers also questioned a $5 billion request for the president's counterterrorism partnerships fund, which would train and equip foreign militaries, including Syrian opposition rebels, and provide money for Syria's neighbors to help stabilize the region.

They demanded more details over how those funds would be spent, and said the request duplicated existing Pentagon funds for the same purpose.

"It just amounts to a blank check," said Rep. Diane Black (R-Tenn.). 

"They will not go on forever [and] they are exceedingly important," said Heather Higginbottom, deputy secretary of State for Management and Resources, who was asked to testify because some of the funding would be coordinated with State.

—This story was updated at 1:46 p.m.