Skeptical lawmakers from both parties cross-examined Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates for hours Thursday in tense House and Senate hearings on U.S. strikes against Libya, which one angry Republican called “an unconstitutional and illegal war.”
Mr. Gates told the House Armed Services Committee that the conflict had cost $550 million as of Monday and that the U.S. commitment to operations is winding down as NATO takes over. He said he expects the cost going forward to be about $40 million a month.
His comments provided Congress its first official cost estimate of the Libyan operation, the U.S. military’s third major conflict in 10 years.
“In terms of how to pay for this … we are in the discussions with the White House right now,” Mr. Gates said, noting that Congress is weighing a supplemental funding bill for current-year “overseas contingency operations” in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“And my personal view — I haven’t coordinated this with the White House or [the Office of Management and Budget], but I think we ought to be able to find a way to deal with this in the framework of that bill without adding to the top-line number.”
Mr. Gates said there is “several billion dollars” in the contingency legislation “that was moved around, principally by the Congress, … [to pay for] things that we don’t need or want,” and that cash could be used to pay for operations in Libya and for the 18,000 personnel and 19 warships helping with disaster relief in Japan.
The news that there is so much spare money in the contingency bill appeared to be an unwelcome surprise to many lawmakers, who are locked in acrimonious negotiations about how to cut current-year spending to reduce the national deficit.
“Secretary Gates, that causes somewhat of a problem,” said Rep. Colleen W. Hanabusa, Hawaii Democrat. “If we are cutting the budget … as much as it can, I’m curious as to how you are going to now be able to accommodate [the costs of operations in Libya and Japan] out of that [contingency operations] budget that is supposed to already be cut pretty close to the bone.”
Mr. Gates said he did not have a list of the unneeded spending items, and defense officials did not respond to a request for clarification.
But the costs, and how they will be met, were not the principal cause of heartburn among lawmakers: That was the president’s decision to dispatch U.S. forces without first seeking congressional approval, as they say he is required under the War Powers Act.
President Obama informed congressional leaders in both chambers once he had decided to commit U.S. forces, but there was “no consultation at all” before the decision, said Rep. Walter B. Jones, North Carolina Republican. “Truthfully, we’ve been left out in the cold on this one,” he said.
“We’re not a strong nation, and we can’t pay our own bills right now,” Mr. Jones said.
Mr. Gates defended the administration’s action, saying it was consistent with the views of all six administrations for which he had worked since Congress passed the War Powers Act after the Vietnam War.
“It has been the view of every president since the War Powers Act was passed that the kind of action we are taking is compliant with the law,” he said.
But skeptical lawmakers seemed unconvinced.
“If tomorrow a foreign nation intentionally, for whatever reason, launched a Tomahawk missile or its equivalent to New York City, would that be considered an act of war against the United States of America?” said Rep. Randy J. Forbes, Virginia Republican, noting that was what the U.S. had done in Libya.
“You’re getting into constitutional law here, and I’m no expert on it,” Mr. Gates said.
“You’re secretary of defense. You ought to be an expert on what’s an act of war or not,” Mr. Forbes said.
Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, Maryland Republican, told Mr. Gates in an angry tone that “many people feel that this is an unconstitutional and illegal war.” He said he had written a bill that would require the administration to come up with a list of cuts to nonsecurity spending programs that could be implemented to pay for it.
Mr. Gates said the president would welcome a congressional resolution of support for the Libya operation, but several lawmakers said they would oppose it or were doubtful that the House would pass it.
“We don’t understand what he’s doing, still, and I don’t think he has the support of this Congress, but that’s my personal opinion,” said Rep. Jeff Miller, Florida Republican.
Any such vote likely would be supported and opposed by congressmen of both parties, added Rep. Rick Larsen, Washington Democrat.
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