In a move sure to draw sharp protests on Capitol Hill, Pentagon officials are not planning to send along an fiscal 2009 war spending supplemental request when it submits its annual budget request to Congress next month, congressional and defense sources said.
Instead, the hefty supplemental for next year would likely come to Capitol Hill this spring -- weeks after the Defense Appropriations subcommittees begin their scrub of the Pentagon budget.
"The administration has concluded that it's better not to say anything than to even suggest something," a House Democratic aide said. It "looks like they're going to continue funding the war as they have been."
A Pentagon spokesman said he believed no firm decision had been made and stressed that it would be premature to comment on the budget before it is submitted to Congress.
For years, lawmakers have criticized the Bush administration for relying on emergency spending, which is not subject to the same caps and oversight as traditional budget requests, to pay for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Critics in both parties have argued that the years-long operations no longer can be called an emergency and should be considered in tandem with the routine budget request.
In 2006, Congress attached a provision to the fiscal 2007 defense authorization bill requiring the Defense Department to request all predictable war costs on a yearly basis at the same time as it submits its annual budgets.
Arizona Sen. John McCain, now the top Republican on the Armed Services Committee, sponsored the language in the Senate, where it drew unanimous support.
In his signing statement on the bill, President Bush raised constitutional issues with that provision, but ultimately requested $141.7 billion for the Defense Department in emergency wartime spending along with its fiscal 2008 annual budget. The Pentagon later requested an additional $47.6 billion for the military to pay for overseas operations.
Over the last year, the administration and the military have become increasingly frustrated with Congress's slow work on war spending. For fiscal 2008, Congress has appropriated $16.8 billion for mine-resistant vehicles used in Iraq and, right before adjourning for the year, another $70 billion for the war.
Delays in passing the full fiscal 2008 war funding request may make it more difficult for Pentagon planners to budget accurately for the coming fiscal year, surmised Steve Kosiak, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.
Meanwhile, the situation in Iraq is changing, adding more uncertainty to war budget projections, he added.
Indeed, should the war spending request come to Capitol Hill this spring, it would coincide with an Iraq progress report expected in March or April from Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. military commander in the country, sources said.
Still, Kosiak questioned the Pentagon's rationale for not providing at least a placeholder for war spending in conjunction with its budget submission. After all, he said, defense officials are not averse to amending the war request, as they did last year.