Arizona Republic (Phoenix)
April 1, 2007
By Andrew Taylor, Associated Press
WASHINGTON - The real deadline for Congress to provide more money for the war in Iraq is well beyond the April 15 deadline cited by President Bush and Defense Secretary Robert Gates.
The Pentagon can take several penny-pinching steps without harming troop readiness or other dire consequences predicted by the Bush administration until Congress actually comes up with the money.
Mid-April is about when $70 billion provided by Congress for the war will run out. After that, Pentagon accountants will move money around in the department's more than half-trillion dollar budget to make sure operations in Iraq and Afghanistan are not disrupted.
In fact, according to an analysis by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service, the Army has enough bookkeeping flexibility to pay for operations in Iraq well into July. Lawmakers and Capitol Hill staff aides view mid- to late May as the deadline for completing the war spending bill to avoid hardships.
The White House lashed out on Saturday against majority Democrats, who just started their vacation without finishing work on the spending bill.
Democrats "are denying our troops on the battlefields of Afghanistan and Iraq what their commanders say they need by mid-April and asking the military to start making painful and unacceptable cuts so that they can make a political statement," White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said.
The Army, Gates testified this past week, "will be forced to consider" altering training schedules for reserves and units to be deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as delays in repairing equipment and renovating barracks.
The steps under consideration include borrowing from training, maintenance, personnel and procurement funds set to be spent later in the budget year, which runs through September. They have become routine in recent years.
The money is repaid, usually with minimal disruption, when the president signs the war spending bill. But you might not realize that, given the recent rhetoric from the White House.
"If Congress does not approve the emergency funding for our troops by April the 15th, our men and women in uniform will face significant disruptions, and so will their families," Bush said March 23.
Perino said Saturday that Democrats "are saying the military can theoretically continue fighting the war on terror as long as it makes sacrifices that adversely impact training and readiness."
Such criticism was scarce when the GOP-controlled Congress was tardy in providing war dollars last year. At the time, there was a warning about "serious impacts" if the money was delayed further, but it came in a little-noticed letter from the White House budget office. Congress ignored the warning and went on vacation.
Last May and June, when $66 billion in Iraq and Afghanistan money was late, the Army faced a "near disastrous cash flow' experience," Gen. Peter Schoomaker, the Army's chief of staff, told Congress in February.
But there was no effect on troop readiness and training missions, nor delays in rotating troops out of Iraq. Instead, the Army froze civilian hiring, fired some temporary employees, stopped non-emergency travel and delayed purchases of information technology, Schoomaker said.
That is why many lawmakers view Bush's April 15 deadline more as a target date. The private signal many are getting from the Pentagon is that mid-May is when the money will be needed to avoid disrupting activities such as training.
"The president is once again attempting to mislead the public and create an artificial atmosphere of anxiety," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.
The Congressional Research Service report said the Pentagon has only begun to start "reprogramming" money between accounts to make sure overseas operations are not disrupted.
The Army, which has the biggest duty in Iraq, can last into the summer by using this transfer authority. That is especially true when shifting money set to be spent in the current budget year's fourth quarter, from July through September.