The Clinton Administration's emergency bid for $2.6 billion to finance military operations from Haiti to Kuwait suffered a setback Thursday as a key Senate panel effectively denied the request, ordering the Pentagon to use money from elsewhere in its budget instead.
By unanimous vote, the Senate Appropriations Committee approved legislation that would force the Defense Department to raid other defense programs to pay for its contingency operations, and then limit such transfers to $1.9 billion--less than the Pentagon says it needs.
The measure, backed by Republicans and Democrats, was designed to blunt a House-passed proposal that would give the Pentagon $3.2 billion--$600 million more than the Administration had asked--and would pay for half of the total by cutting domestic programs.
But the Senate bill also would deal a double whammy to the Pentagon, which already has cut into its training and readiness budgets to pay for the military operations. Military leaders say they must have more funds by mid-March or they will be forced to cut operations even further.
The bipartisan support for the Senate bill underscored the sharp differences between Senate and House Republicans on key elements of the House GOP's "contract with America," which had called for increasing the Administration's defense budget.
Although the Senate bill would cut some domestic programs as well, panel members made it clear they had included them only to serve as a chip for bargaining with the House and would probably jettison them when the measure goes to a House-Senate conference committee.
"If we don't have any rescissions (offsetting spending cuts), we don't have anything to discuss with the House," said Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.), the panel's ranking minority member.
The bill is expected to be rushed to the Senate floor next week so that a conference committee can push a compromise version through both houses by mid-March.
Defense Secretary William J. Perry has warned that unless Congress acts by then, the services will have to slash training, maintenance and procurement severely. The Pentagon has financed the peacekeeping and military ventures by using up its operating funds.
Perhaps the major difficulty with the Senate bill, as far as the Administration is concerned, is that it would squeeze the Defense Department seriously--by effectively requiring it to pay for its military operations by siphoning money from other defense programs.
Although the committee voted Thursday to restore some of the House-passed cuts that the Administration had opposed--such as $190 million in aid to Russia--it also would slash Pentagon spending for environmental cleanup of military bases and subsidies for new technology.
Perry has vowed to stage a vigorous fight for the continuation of all three programs, and the White House is opposed to many of the cuts that both bills would make in domestic spending, including development aid for Africa and subsidies for clean coal technology.
Despite the Senate panel's bipartisan support for the bill, Thursday's action drew expressions of apprehension from some senators that the panel may be setting a bad precedent by forcing the Pentagon to pay for its military operations from its regular budget.
Sen. Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii), ranking minority member of the Appropriations defense subcommittee, said the principle would have been ludicrous had it been applied to such operations as the Persian Gulf War.
"We may be setting a very dangerous precedent," he warned.
But Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), who drafted the legislation, asserted that Congress needed to drive home to the President that he must seek Congress' approval before launching such military operations instead of coming back later to seek reimbursement.
"There ought to be some kind of procedure for consultation," he said.
The operations that the bill is designed to help finance range from last year's movement of troops and equipment to help head off military threats in Korea and Kuwait to humanitarian and peacekeeping missions in Rwanda, Bosnia, Somalia and Haiti.
The Pentagon had sought $2.6 billion in additional spending authority, to be offset by about $700 million in budget cuts, for a net increase of $1.9 billion. The specifics of which programs were to be cut were to have been decided later.
Pentagon officials voiced a mixed reaction to Thursday's vote, saying they were glad that the Appropriations panel had acted so quickly but were disappointed that it was not providing any increased spending authority.
However, strategists conceded that it might be difficult for the Administration to have the measure changed during floor action. Instead, White House lobbyists are expected to pin their hopes on trying to alter the bill in House-Senate conference.