Leading congressional Democrats took aim yesterday at the Pentagon's $379 billion budget request and its open-ended war on terrorism, voicing their strongest criticism of military operations and a proposed $48 billion increase in defense spending since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.), chairman of the Appropriations Committee, grilled top defense officials at a budget hearing about the lack of an "exit strategy" in Afghanistan, their failure to capture al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, and a widening global campaign against terrorists that seems to have "no end in sight."
Such sharp criticism, voiced in both the Senate and in the House during a hearing on missile defense, showed Democrats probing for ways to question the war and defense buildup without seeming unpatriotic in an election year.
Since Sept. 11, Democrats have been loath to criticize either the conduct of the war or the largest proposed increase in defense spending since the Reagan administration, with polls showing that more than 80 percent of Americans approve of the job President Bush is doing, particularly when it comes to the anti-terrorism campaign. The Democrats hope to wrest control of the House from Republicans in fall elections while holding their one-vote margin in the Senate.
Democratic leaders have gone out of their way to avoid criticizing the administration's anti-terrorism efforts, even as they set out their differences with the White House on taxes, spending and other domestic issues. But some lawmakers said that questions about the costs and long-term strategies for the war are being raised with increasing frequency in private, along with grumbles about whether the administration is taking congressional support for granted.
"There is a very strong commitment to provide the funds needed to conduct the war," said a senior Democratic aide, "but this does not preclude the need for information so that Congress can conduct its oversight responsibilities under the Constitution."
Byrd and Sen. Ernest F. Hollings (D-S.C.) -- pro-defense mavericks who are staunch defenders of congressional prerogatives in foreign and military affairs -- focused on the open-ended nature of the war and its growing cost.
"If we expect to kill every terrorist in the world, that's going to keep us going beyond doomsday," Byrd said. "How long can we afford this? We went [to Afghanistan] to hunt down the terrorists. We don't know where Osama bin Laden is or whether he is alive or not. We don't know where Mullah [Mohammad] Omar is hiding. . . . When will we know we have achieved victory?"
Byrd said the Pentagon has sent him documents estimating that the war would cost $30 billion in the current fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30, meaning Congress will be asked to provide an extra $12.6 billion in addition to $17.4 billion in supplemental spending approved last fall.
"We've got a deficit and we know it will exceed $350 billion," Hollings said. The administration, he said, seems to be arguing, "Since we've got a war, we've got to have deficits -- and the war is never going to end."
Sooner or later, Hollings said, "this town is going to sober up."
Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz assured both Democratic senators that steps are being taken at the Pentagon to save money to simultaneously prosecute the war and modernize the armed forces.
"You're absolutely right that we have to be concerned about over-committing ourselves," Wolfowitz said. "I can't tell you when we have won. That's something we will only know when the terrorists have stopped. We do know they are out there in large numbers."
In the House, Democrats took advantage of a hearing with the head of the Pentagon's missile defense program to mount fresh attacks not only on its $7.8 billion price tag but also on a recent administration move to exempt the program from traditional Defense Department oversight controls.
"It would be a mistake to interpret the silence in the wake of September 11th as a sign of approval by all in the Congress of these unprecedented actions," said Rep. Martin T. Meehan (D-Mass.), ranking minority member of the Armed Services subcommittee on research and development. "The administration's proposals raise very serious questions in the minds of many members on our side."
The administration's $7.8 billion request for missile defense in fiscal 2003 is about the same that Congress approved last year but $2.5 billion more than the Clinton administration received for anti-missile systems in its final year.
The Congressional Budget Office estimated last month that the ultimate cost of a national missile defense could range from $23 billion for the simplest system of ground-based interceptors to $68 billion for a network of space-based lasers, and much more if, as Pentagon planners envision, it encompasses various anti-missile weapons.
Rep. Gene Taylor (D-Miss.), ranking minority member of the Armed Services subcommittee on procurement, said the money spent on missile defense would come at the expense of other defense needs, notably ships and aircraft to replace aging fleets, a sacrifice that, he suggested, the United States could ill afford. "That's the real debate," Taylor said.
Defending the administration's plans to test a wide range of missile defense technologies, Lt. Gen. Ronald T. Kadish, director of the Missile Defense Agency, pointed to several successful intercept attempts over the past year and the scheduled deployment soon of an advanced Patriot system for shooting down short-range missiles.
Pressed on when the United States would finally be able to intercept a long-range missile with any confidence, Kadish said 2004. That is when the Pentagon plans to complete a test facility in Alaska with five silos, plus one spare, that officials hope will also provide rudimentary coverage against a North Korean missile attack.
Rep. John M. Spratt Jr. (D-S.C.), another missile defense critic, said after the hearing that the Democratic barrage had not been coordinated beforehand. But he said it was likely that the Democrats would mount challenges to the spending plan in committee and on the House floor and possibly attempt to legislate specific requirements for the program.
Staff writer Helen Dewar contributed to this report.
© 2002 The Washington Post Company