Rumsfeld, Ridge defend supplemental request, flexibility

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld Thursday reiterated the need for Congress to give the administration broad leeway in the $74.7 billion fiscal 2003 wartime supplemental appropriations bill it has requested.

At the same hearing, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge tried to assure senators that his department was working with states and local communities to make sure that unspent federal anti-terrorism dollars are getting out to the people who need them. Appearing before the Senate Appropriations Committee, Rumsfeld said the Pentagon has already exhausted all its discretionary funds for the first three quarters of fiscal 2003 and would likely spend all of its money by late spring or early summer, making the $62.6 billion in requested Defense Department funds that much more crucial. He also said that the money would not cover the entire cost of the war-only what will be needed through the rest of the fiscal year.

While appropriators have vowed to move the supplemental at an expedited pace-indeed, both the House and Senate Appropriations committees have scheduled markups for Tuesday, although Senate Appropriations Chairman Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, indicated Thursday his markup might be delayed-they have so far balked at going along with the administration's request to create a $59.9 billion general trust fund to be allotted by the administration as needs arise.

"This is a very serious thing we're being asked to do," said Appropriations ranking member Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., who lectured Rumsfeld on congressional prerogatives and the need to account for taxpayers' dollars. But Rumsfeld said if Congress does not give more discretion, the Pentagon and other agencies would be forced to borrow money from accounts to fill needs-a "terrible way to operate," Rumsfeld said. He also said it would jeopardize the ability to make deals with countries helping with the war.

But Byrd said Congress "can't afford to give this administration or any other administration a blank check." Later, Stevens left some room for a compromise. Rumsfeld pointed out that Congress appropriated a reserve fund in the fiscal 2002 supplemental immediately following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack, and Stevens replied, "Yes, Mr. Secretary, and there will be one this time, too."

Meanwhile, Ridge tried to assuage senators annoyed by the fact that many states have yet to spend homeland security dollars appropriated by the federal government. Senate Minority Whip Harry Reid, D-Nev., said he keeps hearing that state and local officials are "desperate for money," but that a "typical government snafu" has kept the dollars from flowing to where they are needed. Ridge attributed the slowdown to the fact that many states have not yet come up with emergency response plans. He added that the president's Homeland Security Advisory Committee was working on a template that states can use to help them begin drawing down homeland dollars.

Ridge also acknowledged that the formula used to allocate funds-which critics say have hurt mayors' ability to get money to local first responders-needs to be rewritten, but that there was not time to do it before Congress plans to finish the supplemental, likely before the spring recess.