By Martin Matishak and Kristina Wong - 06/26/14 07:02 PM EDT
THE TOPLINE: The White House is seeking $58.6 billion in funding for the Afghanistan war from Congress for the next year.
The requested amount for the fiscal year beginning in October is less than the $85 billion provided this year, and is also down from the $79.4 billion the White House included in the president’s budget in March.
It comes as the U.S. begins to wind down its presence in Afghanistan, with all troops scheduled to leave the country at the end of 2016.
“Today’s request is consistent with the plan the president laid out at West Point, which made the case for bringing the U.S. war in Afghanistan to a responsible end, while ensuring our armed forces have the flexibility and resources required to respond to emerging needs as terrorist threats around the world continue to evolve,” the White House said.
Republicans in Congress indicated they would have little issue with the amount, but promised there would be a debate over how the funds are to be used.
The funding, known as Overseas Contingency Operations, was created to pay for Iraq and Afghanistan war costs, but in recent years has been used to fund other operations as well as things that were previously funded from the services' base budgets.
A White House fact sheet indicated that practice would continue, noting that besides the post-2014 mission in Afghanistan and related activities, the $58.6 would pay for “other critical missions, including counterterrorism, in the region.”
It would also use the fund to pay for sending home thousands of pieces of military equipment from Afghanistan, to repair that equipment and to replenish ammunition stocks.
Fiscal conservative group Pentagon Budget Campaign criticized the request as higher than necessary.
“The OCO number is lower than the placeholder estimate, a victory for advocates of reducing wasteful spending at the Pentagon,” it said. “However, analysts expressed concern as to why the request is well above what is needed for the limited number of troops that will remain in Afghanistan.”
SYRIAN REBELS: The White House is requesting $500 million in its $58.6 billion wartime funding request for the Pentagon to train and equip vetted Syrian opposition rebels fighting against Syrian dictator Bashar Assad.
If Congress approves the request, it would allow efforts to train and equip the moderate opposition rebels to broaden from a CIA program to a Defense Department program, which would allow it to occur on a faster and wider scale.
The effort is part of the larger $1.5 billion Regional Stabilization Initiative, backed by Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.), who has long-supported training and equipping moderate opposition forces in Syria's three-year long civil war.
The initiative mirrors language included in his committee's proposed 2015 defense authorization bill.
"In light of recent events in Iraq and Syria, this is appropriate spending," Levin said.
According to the request submitted by the White House, the funds would build up the capacity of the Syrian opposition and work to strengthen neighboring countries, including Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq, to "manage the spillover effects of the Syrian conflict," such as refugee assistance.
TICK TOCK ON VA REFORM BILL: House and Senate lawmakers are racing against the clock to come up with a Veterans Affairs overhaul bill, despite a possibly inflated price tag.
With the Fourth of July recess next week, a looming August break and then the November election, the 28 members on the bill’s conference committee have little time left to tackle an issue many have called a national emergency.
A potential stumbling block in the talks is a recent report by the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office that estimates the Senate’s legislation would cost as much as $50 billion annually, while the House draft would cost $44 billion.
Many lawmakers have disputed the CBO’s assessment and argued that the cost of the finalized conference bill is the only figure that matters.
Regardless of the costs, conferees are still far apart on how to pay for the legislation. Senators adopted a resolution allowing their bill to be funded through emergency spending, while more conservative House members say cuts must be made elsewhere in the federal budget.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), one of the architect's of the Senate measure, implored House lawmakers to fund the finalized bill as emergency legislation.
“I hope very much we can avoid once again having a major debate about cutting food stamps, education roads and bridges in order to fund the VA,” he said.
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