WASHINGTON – The Bush administration may back down from its proposal to fully control the initial $25 billion for wars in Iraq and Afghanistan next year after senators demanded a role for Congress.
"We will work with you," Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz (search) told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday after members of both parties said they opposed giving the White House free rein in spending the money.
President Bush sent lawmakers his formal request for the $25 billion on Wednesday, the first portion of 2005 spending that Wolfowitz said would surpass $50 billion.
The documents suggested most of the money would be used for operations and maintenance for the Army and other services. But the proposal would let the president shift the money to any defense or classified program after simply notifying Congress five days beforehand.
Initially, Wolfowitz defended the proposal to give Bush unlimited leeway.
"We are looking for the kind of flexibility that will make sure that when a need arises, we can allocate funds to where that need exists," Wolfowitz said.
But his tone changed after several senators voiced their opposition.
"I'm going to support this $25 billion, but we're going to put limitations on it because we're sworn to protect the people's money," said Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., who waved a copy of the Constitution (search) at the witness table.
Even the panel's chairman, Sen. John Warner, R-Va., said lawmakers want to make sure "we can maintain our oversight" of the funds.
Wolfowitz's acknowledgment that the war price tag would exceed $50 billion for the budget year that starts Oct. 1 edged the administration toward critics' estimates of closer to $75 billion. White House budget chief Joshua Bolten (search) earlier this year said the "upper limit" of next year's war spending might be $50 billion.
With monthly war expenditures approaching $5 billion, next year's total cost "is $50 billion to $60 billion," Wolfowitz told the panel. "If you look at our operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, it's a big bill."
Wolfowitz told senators the next request for funds will come early next year, and "it will surely be much larger than $25 billion."
That means the total in 2005 would be more than $50 billion.
The war spending is on top of the $402 billion Bush has proposed for the Defense Department for 2005.
Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Congress has provided $165 billion to the Pentagon (search) for Iraq, Afghanistan and anti-terrorism efforts at home and abroad - excluding what Bush wants for next year.
Rep. Jerry Lewis, R-Calif., chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee that controls the Pentagon's budget, has said he expects next year's cost to be $75 billion. Democrats on the House Budget Committee have calculated that the price tag will range from $67 billion to $79 billion, based on current spending reports by the Defense Department.
Bush's war request excludes $1 billion that Marc Grossman, undersecretary of state for political affairs, told the House International Relations Committee will be needed next year to staff a U.S. embassy in Baghdad.
That excludes construction of an embassy, which under some scenarios would cost another $1 billion.