WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration plans to ask for between $80 billion and $100 billion to fund military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan next year, rather than the $70 billion to $75 billion the White House privately told members of Congress before the election, according to Pentagon and White House officials.
Administration officials said yesterday they have not concluded how much money they will request in a "supplemental" spending package that is scheduled to go to Congress in January.
"There's work going on inside the department to understand what's needed, and there's work going on with the Office of Management and Budget," the Defense Department's chief spokesman, Lawrence Di Rita, told reporters yesterday.
But some analysts and government officials said the request is expected to run as high as $100 billion, bringing the total cost of operations in Iraq alone to well over $200 billion since the March 2003 invasion.
Earlier this fall, members of Congress said the Defense Department told them in private briefings the supplemental package would be between $70 billion and $75 billion. The budget request will be higher, sources said, because of the greater number of soldiers -- temporarily boosted to 150,000 -- needed to provide security around the time of the Jan. 30 Iraqi elections, and the loss of equipment due to the vigorous insurgency there.
In June, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimated that the 2005 supplemental to be submitted this January for Iraq and Afghanistan would be between $55 billion and $60 billion.
The January supplemental will be the third special budget request to cover the military costs of Iraq. The administration asked for $55.8 billion in April 2003 and $71.8 billion in November 2003. In May of this year, Congress added $25 billion in war costs to the fiscal 2005 defense budget. In total, $152.6 billion in military funding for Iraq has been provided through the end of this year.
Those statistics do not include emergency money to support the 20,000 US troops in Afghanistan, which brings the total bill to $162.3 billion.
In addition, the military has been spending more than was approved for 2004, in anticipation of a fresh infusion of funds in early 2005.
"They ran out of the 2004 budget a month early [and] had to borrow [from] 2005," said John Pike, a defense specialist at the military think tank GlobalSecurity.org, a military think tank in Alexandria, Va. "They're already starting to suggest that the 2005 budget is going to be $100 billion for one year alone."
The Iraq operation, he said, has "been running over a billion a week thus far. I think we're probably getting up to $2 billion a week fairly soon."
Few analysts expect the Iraq mission to be wrapped up in a year, and many question why the Bush administration is continuing to budget its war costs through supplementals -- usually reserved for one-time, emergency expenses -- rather than include them in the annual budget request that is sent to Capitol Hill every February.
Democrats and some fiscally conservative Republicans believe the administration is trying to hide the effects of rising war costs on the federal deficit, thereby justifying President Bush's calls for making some tax cuts permanent and spending more on education and other domestic priorities.
Although war costs ultimately get added to the deficit, keeping them off the annual budget creates a false picture of the government's commitments at a time when Congress is making funding decisions, critics said.
Brian Reidl, an economist with the conservative-leaning Heritage Foundation, said the Iraq funding should be put in the defense budget, because the Pentagon knows it will need money to pay for the operation. Leaving it out masks the true size of the deficit, he said.
"There's an argument to be made that [early in the year] you don't know what you'll need" for Iraq funding, Reidl said. But "there's no reason why you can't put in a place-holder to at least estimate the cost."
The administration separates the Iraq funding because "it's easier to sell the budget resolution with a smaller deficit and a smaller spending total because Iraq is excluded," Reidl said.
Steve Kosiak, a defense budget specialist at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington, added that "the idea is [supplementals] are supposed to be used when there is a surprise. This is no longer a surprise that we are in Iraq."
The actual cost of the military operations in Iraq is higher than any of the supplementals suggest, analysts said, because the wartime wear and tear on people and equipment will require expenditures long after the war ends.
A soon-to-be-completed classified study by the Government Accountability Office requested by Democrats on the Senate Budget Committee concludes that the cost of "resetting" the worn-out armed forces for peacetime will require billions more than the money needed simply to maintain combat operations, according to congressional officials.
"They will need new training and the sense is that the longer this thing goes on the deeper the problems get," said a congressional staff member who has been briefed on the GAO study.
Meanwhile, the Pentagon yesterday alerted more units to be ready for duty in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Tens of thousands of Army soldiers from Alaska, Florida, Georgia, Kansas, Kentucky, New York, and Texas -- including a brigade of the Army's 10th Mountain Division based at Fort Drum in New York -- will prepare to deploy overseas by the middle of 2005. The planned rotations, and others to be announced in the coming weeks, would maintain a force of 138,000 US troops in Iraq well into 2006.
However, Di Rita called the notifications "prudent planning" and cautioned that it does not necessarily mean the United States will need all those forces.
"It would be wrong to say that, as far as the eye can see, this is the number," Di Rita said. "It may very well be less than this. It may be the same amount. It may be more."
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