GOP's defense hawks threaten to oppose House budget plan

Just two days before the fiscal 2003 budget resolution hits the floor, House GOP leaders lack the votes to pass their $2.1 trillion budget resolution, as hardliners on the Armed Services Committee are threatening to vote no unless it guarantees that the entire $10 billion reserve fund for the war on terrorism is devoted exclusively to defense.

Although the leadership is confident they can resolve the flap and are working closely with the White House to that end, officials from both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue were dealt an unexpected blow last week from none other than Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Asked to weigh in with the defense hawks in support of the budget's reserve fund, Rumsfeld sent a letter to Capitol Hill that instead gave the hawks more ammunition to argue the budget shortchanges defense.

Earlier this month, 27 GOP members of the House Armed Services Committee, including Armed Services Chairman Bob Stump, R-Ariz., and the chairmen of all five subcommittees, wrote to Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., saying: "We strongly believe that the House would be sending the wrong message … if we were to, in any way, reduce or divert a portion of the president's defense budget request for other purposes. Accordingly, we would find it very difficult to support a budget resolution that does not fully provide the president's budget for the national defense function of $396.1 billion in budget authority for [2003]."

But the budget resolution provides $393.8 billion, including the $10 billion war reserve--and most objectionable to defense hawks, it leaves the door open to spending that money on non-defense war expenses by making it available for "activities to respond to or protect against acts or threatened acts of terrorism."

Led by Armed Services Procurement Subcommittee Chairman Curt Weldon, R-Pa., defense hawks held a news conference last Thursday insisting the entire $10 billion "is spent for defense and for nothing else," Weldon said then. "We cannot allow these funds to be used as a piggy-bank for non-defense programs."

Behind the scenes, defense hawks have also said they would prefer that the $10 billion be added to the $369 billion the budget allocates for defense discretionary spending, to bring that figure to $379 billion, but publicly they have focused on ensuring that the fund be used only for defense.

Rumsfeld's letter, which House GOP sources said frustrated the leadership and White House officials trying to bring the hawks back on board, only added fuel to the fire by suggesting the Pentagon needs far more than $10 billion.

Rumsfeld called for Congress "to approve the president's [2003] defense budget of $379 billion, and particularly the $10 billion requested to finance a portion of the increased operations costs to continue the global war against terrorism," rather than specifically endorse the $369 billion plus $10 billion structure of the budget resolution.

After listing several possible uses for the fund, Rumsfeld wrote, "Even so, the $10 billion would only get us through the first few months of [2003]. It is important, though, that we be clear to our people, our coalition partners, and to our enemies that we are committed to winning this war."

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