WASHINGTON – Ever since Sept. 11, the Defense Department has had pretty easy sledding on Capitol Hill, with both parties fighting over which one can throw the most money at the Pentagon.
But some grumbling this week indicates the free pass may not work quite so easily now that President Bush has upped the ante, boosting proposed defense spending by $48 billion, to $379 billion for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1, while holding the lid on many domestic programs.
"I've been a hawk for 50 years here in Congress," Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, told Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld on Tuesday. "Practically every weapons systems that's ever been thought of, I've been a supporter of."
But now, he said, "We have a budget here that's going to spend over a billion dollars a day on defense."
There are competing important matters, like soon-to-be-retiring baby boomers that are expecting Social Security and Medicare benefits and an aging population seeking drug prescription benefits. Yet the increase for domestic discretionary programs totals only 2 percent, Byrd said at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing Tuesday.
And there's no way to tell when the huge defense budgets will subside because there's no way to tell when the war on terrorism will be won.
"What is victory?" he asked Rumsfeld. "What will be our standard?"
"It's a very difficult thing to say," Rumsfeld said. He indicated military, judicial and financial crackdowns worldwide have made life tougher for terrorists, and victory will be clearer when countries no longer harbor terror groups. "Is it as simple as World War II? No, it's much more complex."
Rumsfeld also heard criticism from a fellow Republican, Sen. Jim Bunning of Kentucky.
"If we're going to spend a billion-plus dollars a day ... we ought to know, one way or the other, whether Usama bin Laden is in Somalia, or if he's in Iraq, or we ought to know where his second in command is," Bunning said. "I'd like to have a little more assurance that you're going to finish the job that you started after Sept. 11."
"It is not over," Rumsfeld said. "The Taliban is no longer governing that country. But there are still pockets of Taliban there, there are still Al Qaeda there, and there are still Al Qaeda Taliban just over the borders of that country and it's still a very dangerous situation."
Sen. Wayne Allard, R-Colo., supporting the full budget, said that while it's tough to envision Byrd's hoped-for description of an anti-terror war victory, the answer is clear if the question is asked differently: "What would this world look like if we don't move ahead with this budget?
"We know what it's going to look like if we just look at New York," he said. "We know what it's going to look like if we look at the Pentagon."
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., asked how the Pentagon will spend a proposed $10 billion reserve fund the administration wants for future war needs, saying Congress generally does not approve money for unspecified military activities.
"Could those funds be used for any activity that the president or you decided to use them for ... without further authorization or action from Congress?" Levin asked, mentioning possible action in Iraq, Iran and North Korea, which Bush called an "axis of evil" in his State of the Union last week.
"The funds would be used for the war on terrorism that the president has announced," Rumsfeld said. "He's indicated that Al Qaeda is in some 60 countries — the task has to be to root out those terrorists." The $10 billion reserve, he said, is "such a relatively small amount of money" that it couldn't include "anything the size you're talking about."
Byrd also focused on the use of force against the "axis of evil," asking whether Bush has the authority to send troops into North Korea on the strength of the Sept. 14 congressional resolution approving military action against terrorism.
Rumsfeld did not respond directly to that question.
Secretary of State Colin Powell told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, "There are others in this category," without naming any other country. He indicated the United States is willing to talk to these countries, despite the "axis of evil" designation.