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Senate Panel Takes Up Military Budget Issues

RENÉE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renée Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

The top two Pentagon officials went to capital hill yesterday to explain why Congress should devote more than a third of the federal budget to defense, much of it in Iraq. Defense secretary Robert Gates and Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman General Peter Pace got a wary reception from the Senate Armed Services Committee.

NPR's David Welna reports.

DAVID WELNA: Though he's been a harsh critic from the start of the Iraq war, Armed Services chair Carl Levin found something nice to say yesterday to the chieftains he'd summoned for the Pentagon. The Michigan Democrat told them he was pleased that for the first time, albeit at Congress' insistence. President Bush had included the projected cost of the Iraq war and the budget he sent Congress on Monday.

Senator CARL LEVIN: I hope we're now moving to an era of real transparency of the financial costs of these operations.

WELNA: Defense Secretary Gates acknowledge that a lot of money the Pentagon wants - close to half a trillion dollars for its regular budget, $100 billion more for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan this year and another $145 billion more for those wars next year.

Mr. ROBERT GATES (U.S. Secretary of Defense): There has been understandably a sticker shock at their combined price tags of more than $700 billion.

WELNA: But those budgets perplexed lawmakers. Rhode Island Democrat Jack Reid asked the Pentagon's budget chief Tina Jonas why, with another $230 billion sought for those wars through September of next year, the president's war budget then nosedives.

Senator JACK REID (Democrat, Rhode Island): You're showing a projection of war cost in the following budget in '09 of $50 billion dollars?

Ms. TINA JONAS (Pentagon Budget Chief): Yes, sir. That was Ownby's decision to do it.

Sen. REID: So we go from $230 billion that we already have on the table and suddenly we go from $230 to 50 billion? How realistic is that assumption?

WELNA: Jonas replied it was too hard to know what the U.S. would need for Iraq in 2009, which prompted Reid to put this question to Joint Chiefs chair General Pace.

Sen. REID: Do you have a campaign plan that goes beyond September 1st of '08?

General PETER PACE (Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff): I do not have a campaign plan, sir.

WELNA: No campaign plan. And Defense Secretary Gates was equally vague about future war spending.

Mr. GATES: I don't know of any allocations beyond FY09.

WELNA: West Virginia Democrat Robert Byrd pressed Gates further.

Senator ROBERT BYRD (Democrat, West Virginia): How do you see this war - how long do you see it going on?

Mr. GATES: Well sir, I think that there is very likely to be at least some American presence in Iraq for a number of years. But my hope would be that over the longer term that it would be a fraction of what we have there now.

WELNA: And as he did several times, Gates held out hope U.S. troop levels in Iraq will actually decline.

Mr. GATES: I think, Mr. Chairman, that I would hope that if our operations are successful this year that we would be able to begin drawing down our forces toward the end of the year.

WELNA: Gates also dismissed the Congressional Budget Office study predicting as many as 48,000 additional U.S. troops will be needed for President Bush's latest plan for Iraq.

Mr. GATES: We think that the number is going to be around 21,500. It could be a little more, it could be a little less. But it would not be more than 10 percent more than the 21,500, 10 to 15 percent.

WELNA: And pressed on what the consequences might be should Iraq's government fail to meet the commitments that's made, Gates even hinted at a funding cutoff.

Mr. GATES: There is always the potential of withholding assistance or of changing our approach over there in terms of how we interact with that government. The president has said that American's patience is not unlimited.

WELNA: Nor clearly is the patience of the Democratic-led Congress.

David Welna, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.