Army threatens to furlough thousands of civilian employees

Army leaders pressed Congress Thursday to quickly approve funding for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, warning that they can leverage their core budget to cover war costs only until early next year. Their stark fiscal assessment came as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., reiterated her plans to forgo any more Iraq votes this year, another indication that war funds may not be approved until the next congressional session.

The heavily deployed Army can use some of the $27 billion in its fiscal 2008 operations and maintenance accounts to pay for the war, but Army Secretary Pete Geren warned, "If the Army is asked to fund this without any type of bridge or without any additional resources, we're going to run through that $27 billion probably around mid-February."

Geren, appearing Thursday morning before the Senate Armed Services Committee, added: "We cannot wait until then to start making some of the decisions that will have to be made." Saying the Army will soon begin to feel the effects of the budget crunch, Geren added that Defense Secretary Gates has asked him to begin planning in the event war funding is not enacted by early 2008. The House approved a $50 billion war funding bill on Wednesday.

But the measure, which ties funding to troop withdrawals from Iraq, is not expected to get the 60 votes needed to overcome a likely filibuster in the Senate.

According to new administration estimates provided by a defense official, the Pentagon must begin notifications as early as Dec. 1 in order to carry out the necessary steps to pay for the war. Those include giving as many as 150,000 civilian employees furlough notices, which must be issued 30 to 60 days in advance.

The Army may also need to close child care centers and libraries and halt family and youth activities. Transportation and custodial services at Army bases could also be affected, as well as counseling for returning soldiers and their families. The Army will also be unable to meet its NATO obligations and will have to halt civilian and contractor support to its European and Southern Commands and forces stationed in Korea.

Delayed war funds "will put a terrible burden on soldiers, on families, on institutional learning, our ability to train," Geren said. "Timely funding is absolutely essential. An organization of our size cannot live effectively with unpredictable funding."

Army Chief of Staff George Casey acknowledged Thursday that the Army's current efforts to increase the force by 65,000 troops may not be adequate. The Army's goal to enlarge its ranks to 547,000 active-duty troops is a "good milestone," Casey said. "I believe it's probably not big enough."

The Army chief said he will consider whether the Army needs to further increase its so-called personnel end-strength as it approaches its current goal. But he warned that the service would have to have enough funding to train and equip any additional troops. "Big and hollow is bad," he said.

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