Robert Gates Calls on Congress to Approve War Funds Requested Last Year

Defense Secretary Robert Gates called on Congress Monday to approve $102.5 billion in war funds that President Bush requested last year. The money has been held up by Democrats' disagreements with the White House over the conduct of the war in Iraq.

That money is in addition to another $70 billion in war funding that Bush proposed Monday as part of his 2009 budget request. Gates said the $70 billion was only an estimate of how much it would cost to run the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan during the first months of the budget year that begins Oct. 1. He said a full estimate would be provided this spring after Bush considers a way ahead in Iraq.

Gates urged Congress to approve the stalled $102.5 billion as soon as possible, noting that it was requested last year.

"Delay degrades our ability to operate and sustain the force at home and in theater, and makes it difficult to manage this department in a way that is fiscally sound," Gates told a Pentagon news conference at which the Pentagon's budget chief, Tina Jonas, spelled out details of the 2009 budget plan.

Jonas said uncertainty over whether or when Congress will provide the remaining $102.5 billion in war funding for the current budget is one reason the administration did not offer a full 2009 estimate of war costs in the budget documents sent to Capitol Hill on Monday.

How Congress acts on the $102.5 billion "will affect what we will ask for" in 2009 war funding, she said.

Bush's total defense spending request for $588.3 billion in 2009 defense spending includes $70 billion as an "emergency allowance" for war costs for the first part of the budget year. The White House said, without citing a specific figure, that it would request more for 2009 "once the specific needs of our troops are better known." If the current rate of war spending is a guide, the additional request for 2009 is likely to exceed $100 billion.

Bush is awaiting recommendations from his top commanders and from Gates in April on how much to reduce U.S. troop levels in Iraq this year.

The $588.3 billion total requested falls in three main categories: $515.4 billion in Defense Department spending, $70 billion in initial war costs and $2.9 billion in certain fixed Pentagon costs. The comparable figure for the current budget year is $670.5 billion, combining $479.5 billion in Defense Department spending, $189.1 billion in projected war costs and $1.9 billion in fixed costs. Of the $189.1 billion requested for war costs this year, the Pentagon has actually received $86.7 billion.

Of the $515.4 billion in the proposed Defense Department budget, $20.5 billion would be for increasing the size of the Army by 7,000 soldiers, to 532,400, and adding 5,000 Marines to expand the Corps to 194,000.

Also included is $49.1 billion to recruit, train, equip and sustain the National Guard and Reserve, and $17.3 billion to modernize the aircraft fleets of the Air Force, Navy, Marines and Army.

Bush also asked for $10.4 billion to continue the Pentagon's effort to develop and deploy defenses against long-range missiles.

The budget proposal earmarks $750 million to help other countries improve their ability to fight terrorists -- "recognizing that threats to U.S. security exist beyond the war on terror in Iraq and Afghanistan," according to a Pentagon statement obtained by The Associated Press. The statement did not mention specific countries that would receive such aid.

The president's budget also proposes to spend $389 million to establish a new command focusing on U.S. interests in Africa. The command is headquartered in Stuttgart, Germany and is headed by Army Gen. William Ward.

Spending on special operations forces, such as the Army's Green Berets and the Navy's SEALs, would total $5.7 billion.

Members of the military would get a 3.4 percent pay raise, and the defense civilian work force would see its pay grow by 2.9 percent.