WASHINGTON – Democrats on Tuesday questioned whether President Bush's defense budget would give him too much room to expand the war on terrorism without consulting Congress.
At one point, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Richard Myers acknowledged it is "absolutely possible" American troops will come in harm's way in the Philippines, where the anti-terror effort is already widening.
In a hearing on Bush's 2003 budget plan, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin asked about the Pentagon's plans for a proposed $10 billion reserve fund for unspecified future war needs.
"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, D-Mich., asked Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld. He noted Congress generally doesn't appropriate money in advance for unidentified military operations.
Levin specifically asked about Iraq, Iran and North Korea. Bush called those countries members of an "axis of evil," singling them out for what analysts said was a surprising and harsh warning in his State of the Union address last week.
Rumsfeld noted that the United States is spending $1.8 billion a month for the war on terrorism abroad and heightened security at home since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
"My understanding is that 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 is a relatively small amount that couldn't include "anything the size you're talking about," he told Levin.
Holding up a copy of the Constitution, Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., asked how far the war on terror might be taken after Afghanistan.
"Yes, Mr. Bush is the commander in chief, but take a look at this Constitution, ... a look also at the congressional powers," said Byrd, the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee.
"We're in a conflict now and we intend to win, but ... how many more years will we be appropriating at the rate of a billion dollars a day?" he asked of the $379 billion defense budget proposal.
Rumsfeld also heard some criticism from Sen. Jim Bunning, R-Ky., who complained that the Pentagon has been unable to say whether Al Qaeda leaders such as Usama bin Laden are "alive or dead or where they're at."
"I'd like to have a little more assurance that you're going to finish the job that you started after Sept. 11." Bunning said. "If we're going to spend a billion-plus dollars a day, we have to be able to do that."
Levin also asked Rumsfeld and Myers what the U.S. mission is in the Philippines.
"This is not an operation like you saw in Afghanistan -- this is assistance and this is training," Myers answered. Troops will give advice on improving communications intelligence analysis, for example, to the Philippines' military.
Americans are training local armed forces in their fight against the Muslim extremist group Abu Sayyaf, which has been linked to the Al Qaeda terror network and has been holding an American couple and a Filipino nurse hostage on southern Basilan island for more than eight months.
Some 660 U.S. soldiers, including 160 special forces troops, are involved.
"Is it possible that our forces will come in harm's way? I think the answer to that has to be it's absolutely possible," Myers said. "This is a very dangerous group. They have kidnapped many people, ... they have beheaded people."
Rumsfeld told the committee that the biggest military spending increase in two decades was needed to prepare U.S. troops for future wars even as they fight today's battle against terrorism.
Those tasks are made harder because the Pentagon needs to rebuild after a "decade of overuse and underfunding" following the end of the Cold War, he said.
"Now, through the prism of Sept. 11, we can see that our challenge is not simply to fix the underfunding of the past," Rumsfeld said. Instead, the Defense Department has three difficult missions at once: win the worldwide war on terrorism; restore forces with what he called long-delayed investments in weapons, personnel and facility improvements; and transform the military for 21st century warfare.
"Our adversaries are watching what we do, they're studying how we have been successfully attacked, how we are responding and how we may be vulnerable in the future," Rumsfeld said. "And we stand still at our peril."
For the fiscal year starting Oct. 1, the plan would add $48 billion in budget authority to the Pentagon's spending. The budget proposal includes a 4.1 percent increase in basic military pay.