Real Deadline for Iraq War Money Is May

The real deadline for Congress to provide more money for the war in Iraq is well beyond the April 15 deadline cited by President Bush and Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

The Pentagon can take several penny-pinching steps without harming troop readiness or other dire consequences predicted by the Bush administration until Congress actually comes up with the money.

Mid-April is about when $70 billion provided by Congress for the war will run out. After that, Pentagon accountants will move money around in the department’s more than half-trillion dollar budget to make sure operations in Iraq and Afghanistan are not disrupted.

In fact, according to an analysis by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service, the Army has enough bookkeeping flexibility to pay for operations in Iraq well into July. Lawmakers and Capitol Hill staff aides view mid- to late May as the deadline for completing the war spending bill to avoid hardships.

The Army, Gates testified this past week, “will be forced to consider” altering training schedules for reserves and units to be deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as delays in repairing equipment and renovating barracks.

The steps under consideration include borrowing from training, maintenance, personnel and procurement funds set to be spent later in the budget year, which runs through September. They have become routine in recent years.

The money is repaid, usually with minimal disruption, when the president signs the war spending bill. But you might not realize that, given the recent rhetoric from the White House.

“If Congress does not approve the emergency funding for our troops by April the 15th, our men and women in uniform will face significant disruptions, and so will their families,” Bush said March 23.

White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said Friday, “Every day that the Congress fails to act on this request causes our military hardship and impacts readiness.”

Such criticism was scarce when the GOP-controlled Congress was tardy in providing war dollars last year. At the time, there was a warning about “serious impacts” if the money was delayed further, but it came in a little-noticed letter from the White House budget office. Congress ignored the warning and went on vacation.

Last May and June, when $66 billion in Iraq and Afghanistan money was late, the Army faced a “near disastrous ‘cash flow’ experience,” Gen. Peter Schoomaker, the Army’s chief of staff, told Congress in February.

But there was no effect on troop readiness and training missions, nor delays in rotating troops out of Iraq. Instead, the Army froze civilian hiring, fired some temporary employees, stopped nonemergency travel and delayed purchases of information technology, Schoomaker said.

That is why many lawmakers view Bush’s April 15 deadline more as a target date. The private signal many are getting from the Pentagon is that mid-May is when the money will be needed to avoid disrupting activities such as training missions.

“The president is once again attempting to mislead the public and create an artificial atmosphere of anxiety,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.

The Congressional Research Service report said the Pentagon has only begun to start “reprogramming” money between various accounts to make sure overseas operations are not disrupted.

The Army, which has the biggest duty in Iraq, can last into the summer by using this transfer authority. That is especially true when shifting money set to be spent in the current budget year’s fourth quarter, from July through September.

“They can move china around pretty much until we get to the fourth quarter,” said Gordon Adams, a former Clinton administration budget official who specializes in defense issues. “So into June, while it’s painful, it’s possible.”

Democratic Rep. John Murtha of Pennsylvania, who heads a subcommittee that oversees defense spending, said the real deadline facing lawmakers is about June 1. That is in line with last year’s experience, when a $94.4 billion bill providing war money did not pass Congress until early June.

Nonetheless, Democrats are a little nervous about leaving Washington on their long-scheduled Easter vacation without first delivering the $120 billion-plus Iraq spending bill.

Negotiators have not even meet to reconcile differences between House and Senate versions of the spending bill. Bush has pledged to veto the measure because it has timelines for a U.S. exit from Iraq and nonwar spending added by lawmakers.

Reid told colleagues on Thursday that aides from both parties and both the House and Senate will be working on a compromise during the congressional break.

The House, however, does not return until April 16. Even if a tentative deal is reached by then, getting it through the House and Senate and to Bush would take a week at a minimum. If Bush follows through on his veto, a new bill would have to be written and put to votes.

With that ticking clock in mind, the White House is taking a harder line with Congress now that Democrats are in control.

“Day 53 And Counting Since The President Submitted Emergency Supplemental Funding Request,” read the subtitle of a White House news release Friday.

Added White House spokeswoman Perino: “The president was surprised to learn that Congress went on vacation today.”

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