- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 16, 2002

FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. President Bush, rallying 2,000 special- operation soldiers stationed at Fort Bragg, yesterday commanded Congress to make a proposed increase in defense spending "the first order of business so we can plan for this war."

The president chided Congress for its standard procedure of delaying the hard work of setting and approving the budget until the latest possible date.

"Oftentimes Congress waits until the last days of the fiscal year in order to pass the defense budget. That's bad budgeting practice in times of peace. That's really bad budgeting practice in times of war," said Mr. Bush.

"I expect the United States Congress to not only pass the budget as I submitted, I expect them to make it the the first order of business so we can plan for this war," he said to whoops and cheers from the camouflage-clad soldiers.

The stern directive came one day after a Senate committee rejected Mr. Bush's call to approve a judicial nominee for a full floor vote.

The president's budget blueprint for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1, which increases defense spending by $48 billion to $379 billion, passed the House Budget Committee on a mostly party-line vote of 23-18. The full House is expected to vote on the target budget next week.

Some Democrats complain the increase the largest in 20 years would spend too much money on obsolete programs and move the Pentagon away from its goal of designing a leaner, more flexible and more lethal military.

But Mr. Bush said, "Let me just make this as clear as I can make it: The price for freedom is high, but it's never too high, as far as I'm concerned.

"Now is not the time to play politics with the defense budget. Now is the time to get it out first, and get it on my desk. We need to send that clear message that not only are we in this for the long haul, but the elected representatives of the United States people understand it, as well."

Speaking to soldiers from the Army's special-operation forces headquarters gathered at the Cumberland County convention center, Mr. Bush said national security is paramount. "So nothing is more important than our defense budget."

As he did last week, Mr. Bush became emotional when he talked about the loss of soldiers in the Afghanistan war. Two men who died in fierce fighting Monday Air Force Tech. Sgt. John A. Chapman, 36, and Army Chief Warrant Officer Stanley L. Harriman, 34 were stationed at Fort Bragg and the adjacent Pope Air Force Base.

"I want their families to know that we pray with them, that we honor them, and they died in a just cause, for defending freedom, and they will not have died in vain," he said, his voice choking and his eyes welling up with tears.

With more that 100 beret-wearing soldiers behind him on a stage draped with radar-reflective camouflage netting, the president drew huge applause with a simple line about the budget: "By the way, it includes another pay raise for people who wear the uniform.

"You are playing a crucial role, a vital role, a successful role in our defense of freedom, in our war against terror," he said.

Mr. Bush reiterated his pledge to do "whatever it takes" to keep nuclear, chemical and biological weapons out of the hands of terrorists and prevent regimes that support them from acquiring weapons of mass destruction.

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