Uncertain war costs hamper budget planning

The uncertainty and anxiety on Capitol Hill about the potential cost for a war in Iraq-and how that might influence future spending and add to growing deficits-continues to cause problems for House and Senate budgeters trying to write their yet-to-be-released fiscal 2004 budget resolutions, while complicating the ability of Republican leaders to pass the president's tax cut agenda.

With lawmakers, aides and news accounts continuing to toss around the figure of $100 billion as a potential-although unofficial-cost estimate, GOP lawmakers and senior staff are increasingly angst-ridden about the political difficulties of passing a budget, a tax cut and a wartime supplemental in a timely fashion.

Indeed, many Republicans privately hope the administration is beginning to see the wisdom of holding off on the supplemental spending request, which many thought would be delivered this month, until later in the spring, when the 2004 budget debate is completed and the president's economic growth package, in whatever form, is passed.

"It's clear that the best way to do the supplemental is after the budget resolution and tax cut are done," said a House GOP leadership aide.

While the administration is staying mum on the size and timing of a war supplemental-or possibly even multiple supplementals-both Senate Budget Committee Chairman Don Nickles, R-Okla., and Appropriations Committee Chairman Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, have attempted to quell anxiety over the budget quagmire by saying a war supplemental would not radically change spending assumptions for 2004, nor drastically increase spending in future years.

Nickles said he would consider much of the war a one-time cost.

"War is a pretty exceptional thing, and it will be treated as [a one-time] emergency," said Nickles, who nevertheless acknowledged that he was trying to figure out what postwar activities might be recurring in order to work them into his budget baseline.

Meanwhile, Stevens attempted to deflect Democratic criticisms about the cost of the war, saying no one demanded to know the potential cost of previous military engagements, such as Bosnia and Kosovo, before they occurred.

"It's not happened before, so why the hell should we do it now?" asked Stevens. "It's really a ploy to embarrass the president."

A GOP appropriations source said that calculating the impact of the potential war on future spending is next to impossible right now because there are no "credible numbers" about what the future cost is going to be-either in 2004 or beyond.

"We don't know what the war cost is, or what the postwar cost is going to be, but we know it's not going to be five dollars and ninety-five cents," said a House GOP appropriations aide. "We're in a really foggy area."

But with April 15, the statutory deadline for completing a budget resolution, around the corner, budgeters feel they have no choice but to move on and hope they can make reasonable enough guesses about the impact a war could have on spending in future years, while taking care of immediate costs in supplemental legislation.

"We can't operate in a vacuum and say it's not going to happen, but we're seven days out of putting a budget on the table," said a House Budget Committee spokesman, referring to next week's planned markup of the 2004 resolution.

He said budgeters would simply have to move forward, and as things develop and costs are known, "work that into the system."