Gates to Congress: Stalling on War Funding Will Hurt U.S. Troops

Defense Secretary Robert Gates has issued a dire warning to lawmakers: If Congress fails to approve billions in additional war funding by July 4, U.S. troops in Afghanistan will be left with scaled back defense operations that could put them in further peril.

"I am becoming increasingly concerned about the lack of progress on the supplemental and strongly urge Congress to complete its work on the request as quickly as possible," Gates told the Senate Appropriations Committee during testimony Wednesday.

The Senate last month approved its version of the $58.8 billion defense bill, which includes $33.45 billion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The measure also pays for 30,000 additional troops to be sent to Afghanistan, as part of President Obama's new war strategy, and allocates $13.4 billion to the Department of Veterans Affairs.

But the House has lagged in approving its measure, and with a July 4 congressional recess looming, Gates underscored the urgency of a war supplemental to meet the added costs of Obama's plan.

"We will have to begin planning to curtail defense operations," Gates said. "Such planning is disruptive, can be costly and especially in a time of war, and I ask your help in avoiding this action."

Pentagon spokeswoman Lt. Commander Kathy Kesler told on Thursday that such "defense operations" could include critical training activities for U.S. troops -- including those deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan.

Kesler said the Pentagon is forced to spend time planning which commands will be forced to conserve their "operations and maintenance" funds.

"This is where it becomes disruptive to us," Kesler said. "Without the supplemental, we will need to start pulling funds from other accounts in the budget."

She added that such funds include a wide range of operations -- aside from training -- though she declined to specify what other programs could take a hit. Gates said in his testimony Wednesday that the overseas contingency for the Navy and Marine Corps. will begin to run out in July.

Lawmakers, including key Democrats, have challenged the Pentagon's assertions that progress is picking up in Afghanistan -- a major factor in the delay to approve billions in additional war funding.

"I wouldn't call it eroding," Democratic Sen. Carl Levin said of once-solid Democratic support for Obama's war strategy. "But there's a lot of fair concern."

Democratic Sen. Patty Murray said she was frustrated by the number of deaths among the Army Stryker units from her home state of Washington, while Sen. Byron Dorgan, a Democrat, asked whether it was even possible for the Afghan government to gain control of the country's disparate tribes.

"We've committed so many lives, so much money, here, and we've neglected so many things inside the borders of the United States," said Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy.

Military leaders, however, have insisted that the U.S. effort is advancing. "I think that we are regaining the initiative," Gates said at the hearing. "I think that we are making headway."

Obama in December ordered 30,000 more Americans be deployed with the promise that troop withdrawals would begin in July 2011. That promise helped to placate Democrats who did not want an enduring troop commitment in Afghanistan.

Republicans, including the top GOP leaders on the House Armed Services, Appropriations and  Education and Labor committees, have also taken issue with the billion dollar defense bill, arguing that it includes "extraneous" funds sought by special interest groups.

In a letter penned to Obama on Wednesday, Reps. Howard P. "Buck" McKeon, R-Calif; Jerry Lewis, R-Calif.; and John Kline, R-Minn, called on Obama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to "publicly commit to moving a clean war funding measure without further delay."

One such point of contention, the three wrote, includes $23 billion for "an unknown number of education-related jobs" and "additional billions for other state purposes."

"Recent media reports suggest a controversial request sent to Congress by the Obama administration last Saturday evening may be delaying a vote on the war-time funding bill," the letter read. "The administration has requested Congress pass $50 billion to bail out state governments – a proposal sought by teachers' unions and other special interests, though it has drawn bipartisan opposition in Congress."

"As this debate unfolds, it must not be used as a wedge to deprive our military of the resources it needs to succeed – at a time when we can least afford to do so," they wrote.

The Associated Press contributed to this report