WASHINGTON – With deficit projections and a White House announcement that it would be looking for an additional $80 billion in war spending, Democrats on Capitol Hill Tuesday said they would seize the moment to expand debate about the Iraq war.
"As Congress works to ensure our troops have what they need to be safe, we owe it to them to critically examine President Bush's request and ask: What are the goals in Iraq and how much more money will it cost to achieve them?" asked House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (search), R-Calif., in a written statement
One Democratic committee aide who asked not to be named said the additional request for funds will likely stir questions from both sides of the aisle.
"I think at this point you will start to see a real discussion, a real dialogue. Up until now, it would have been considered unpatriotic," the aide told FOXNews.com. "But I suspect there will be some Republicans asking questions on this too. This could be the beginning of a debate about accountability and exit strategy."
Other Democrats used Tuesday's announcement to question the White House's expense report and blast the administration for being evasive on the total cost of war.
"The Pentagon and White House have never fully reported how much more the war will cost and what steps are being taken to secure reconstruction aid from the international community," said Rep. Ellen Tauscher (search), D-Calif. "It is unacceptable that such sizable checks bankroll the Pentagon's mismanaged effort in Iraq and Afghanistan."
Even with a lot of congressional oversight, members and aides who spoke to reporters Tuesday said that while Democrats might try to take advantage of the moment, it is unlikely President Bush's request will be rejected.
"We cannot not support [the troops] financially — we've got to do that," said Sen. Ben Nelson (search), D-Neb., a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee who acknowledged that the faster the United States succeeds in making Iraq safer for Iraqis, the sooner the troops can come home.
"The key here is to make sure that the money is spent wisely on helping the Iraqi people stand up their security forces, because the elections and standing up their security forces, those are part of our ticket to bring our troops home," Nelson told FOX News
White House officials told reporters Tuesday that a formal request by the president for a new war supplemental budget might be slightly more than $80 billion and include mostly funds for the war in Iraq. A total of $75 billion would go to military costs and the rest would go to costs related to U.S. military aid for the December tsunami disaster, construction of the U.S embassy in Baghdad, aid to the new Palestinian leadership and aid to the victims of warfare in the Darfur province of Sudan, according to White House aides.
Bush also provided a written statement regarding the supplemental request, saying it would help to fulfill the pledges he made when the United States agreed "to protect America from a gathering threat by removing Saddam Hussein from power," stand with the Iraqi people against terrorists and ensure American troops have everything they need "to protect themselves and complete their mission.
"The request also provides for the continued pursuit of Al Qaeda (search) and other terrorist elements in Afghanistan and elsewhere, while supporting the great progress Afghanistan has made toward joining the community of free nations," he said. "And resources are included to accelerate effort to train and equip Iraqi and Afghan forces, so they can assume greater responsibility for their own security."
White House aides who spoke to reporters Tuesday said the U.S was responding to new and unexpected circumstances on the ground since projections about the cost of the war were made two years ago. Since then, operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, which have been largely funded through several war supplemental budgets, have cost nearly $5 billion a month, say congressional budget officials.
The newest supplemental request would take the total cost of the Iraq war way above $200 billion, say officials.
This is a far cry from the $50 billion to $60 billion Congress was told the war would cost, said House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (search), D-Md., who is also on the House Appropriations Committee. "They missed by a factor of five on this. It has cost them much more than they said it would cost."
Rep. John Murtha of Pennsylvania, ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, said he saw the need for more money in a recent round of visits to U.S bases.
"I just visited three bases where the people were either just back from Iraq or on their way to Iraq. There's no question in my mind that the military is short and the $80 billion is necessary," he said. "It's a matter of how the money is appropriated that'll make the difference. The military has shortages of all sorts of things and these shortages need to be rectified — spare parts, some ammo, mortars, for instance, and they need to continue to armor the Humvees and other vehicles."
The White House announcement came the same day the Congressional Budget Office announced its deficit projections for 2005 and beyond. The office said it expects — without war costs or Bush's Social Security reform plan — deficits of $368 billion for 2005 or $855 billion over the next decade.
The new numbers gave Democrats another opening for attacks on Tuesday. "Republicans control the House, the Senate and the White House, but they can't control the budget and they can't escape responsibility for its dismal condition," said Rep. John Spratt of South Carolina, ranking Democrat on the Senate Budget Committee.
But Brian Riedl, budget policy analyst for the Heritage Foundation, said Tuesday that Democrats appear to be over-emphasizing deficit projections, spinning the real issues out of perspective.
"The important statistic is the debt as percentage of the gross domestic product," which is 38 percent and lower than any year in the "high-flying 1990s," he pointed out. "While the debt is increasing, the economy is growing fast … a growing economy can handle more national debt."
Riedl acknowledged that the costs of war are greater than expected and that the president needs to make some important decisions before additional debt is piled on. "This poses a challenge for Bush to find ways to reduce lower-priority spending in order to fund the troops, without massively increasing total spending," he said.
"You can't put a price on national security and protecting American lives is more important than protecting the bottom line on the budget," he said. "However, if Iraq spending is not offset elsewhere, eventually the country will likely see higher taxes, which will lead to lower incomes and increased poverty."
Senate Budget Committee Chairman Judd Gregg, R-N.H., said that the deficit projections reflect "the challenges that we know lie ahead."
"The deficit is too high and too much of our spending is on automatic pilot," he said. "We must get serious about putting our financial house in order, beginning with short-term deficit reduction and then long-term control of entitlement spending."
As for the supplemental request, many Republicans said they prefer to reserve comment until they had a more thorough briefing of the request, which is expected to be made sometime after Bush offers his full 2006 budget request on Feb. 7. Some aides said they were not surprised by the request, which was expected for a few months now, and were assured that the needs on the ground demanded the extra funding.