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Gates warns of layoffs without war funding from Congress

Times Staff Writers

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said Thursday that he will have to lay off 200,000 civilian employees and contractors, terminate military contracts and partially shut down U.S. military bases unless Congress acts quickly to approve additional funding for the Iraq war.

Echoing similar warnings from past funding battles, Gates said the Army and Marine Corps will develop plans for sharp spending cuts unless Congress moves to provide $196 billion President Bush has requested.

On Tuesday, Bush signed a separate $471-billion Defense appropriations bill. But that spending measure includes little of the money needed to keep the wars going in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The House has offered the president $50 billion as a bridge fund for the wars, but it would require most combat troops to leave Iraq by December 2008.

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The White House has vowed to veto the bill if it passes the Senate in a vote planned for today.

Gates said he has little ability to move money within the Defense budget to pay for war expenses, despite new authority contained in the Defense appropriations bill signed by Bush this week.

Gates said the department was only authorized to move $3.7 billion, which would fund the wars for about a week.

“There is a misperception that this department can continue funding our troops in the field for an indefinite period of time through accounting maneuvers, that we can shuffle money around the department,” Gates said. “This is a serious misconception.”

But congressional Democrats reacted skeptically, recalling similar warnings from Gates earlier this year. Defense officials complained in February about drastic consequences if a funding bill was not passed then; the bleak scenarios did not come about, even though the bill was not passed until May.

“We have determined that both peacetime and war operations can be sustained, with no impact to troop readiness, until at least March 2008,” said Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.), who heads the House Defense Appropriations subcommittee.

At a Senate hearing Thursday, top Army leaders also tried to ratchet up pressure to pass the supplemental funding. Failing to approve the money, said Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the Army chief of staff, “sends the wrong message to soldiers.”

Army Secretary Pete Geren said furloughs of Army civilians would have to begin by February.

“This will fall most heavily on . . . home-based troops and their families,” Geren said.

Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) said the Congress was “nickeling and diming” the military by not passing the supplemental funding.

“Those troops are entitled to absolute support,” Sessions said.

Democratic Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia dismissed suggestions that his party was “reluctant to fund people on the battlefield.”

Some Democrats appeared ready for a major confrontation with the White House. Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) said House Democrats would refuse to send the president a funding bill free of conditions if Senate Republicans block the House measure.

“We’re not going to be taking it up anymore over here,” she told reporters.

In addition to voting on the House’s partial funding measure, the Senate is also likely to vote on a Republican alternative to provide $70 billion without requiring a troop withdrawal.

Even as partisan conflict over the Iraq war began to heat up again, Gates argued Thursday that the administration had moved to address Democratic demands for a drawdown, a timetable for shrinking the force, and a change in the mission.

Gates said the main debate in Congress was over the pace of troop reductions and the change in the mission -- but on those points, Gates said, lawmakers should defer to military commanders.

“It seems to me that there ought to be some deference to those who are running the war, the generals, in terms of . . . the pace at which this drawdown should take place,” Gates said.

Gates offered a positive assessment of the security situation in Iraq and suggested that withdrawing forces too quickly would erode gains of recent months.

“However one feels about how we got to this point, the reality is, we have had some significant success due to the efforts of our men and women in uniform,” Gates said. “We don’t want to sacrifice that success.”

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julian.barnes@latimes.com

noam.levey@latimes.com


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