Monday, February 12, 2007
Bush: More Billions for War but Cut Veterans' Benefits
Plus extra billions added to president’s 2008 budget for war costs
• Will Congress balk at Iraq war budget?
Feb. 5: The White House wants roughly $100 billion on top of the $70 billion Congress has already provided. NBC's David Gregory reports.
Updated: 5:22 p.m. CT Feb 7, 2007
WASHINGTON - President Bush's 2008 budget request includes $624.6 billion in defense spending and marks the first time he has offered an estimate of how much the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will cost a year in advance.
On top of $93.4 billion in additional money for this year's war operations and $141.7 billion in projected war costs for next year, the administration is seeking $481.4 billion to run the Defense Department in the budget year beginning Oct. 1. That is an 11.3 percent increase over the $432 billion approved by Congress for this year. Also in the request for department spending is a little less than $2 billion for benefit programs.
For the first time, the Pentagon figures include what Bush wants to spend to fight the Iraq war, money that in past years was put in supplemental appropriations rather than the regular budget.
The Pentagon said the $141.7 billion in anticipated war costs for 2008 include not only the cost of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan but also the cost of repairing, replacing or replenishing equipment lost in combat by both the active-duty military as well as the National Guard and Reserve.
Though the proposed 2008 figure is less than the $170 billion being spent in 2007 on fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, White House spokesman Tony Fratto said that fact shouldn't be interpreted as an indication of likely reduction in U.S. troops in Iraq.
"We're not saying that the number for '08 is the final number," Fratto said. "We don't know that right now." He said it is "very, very difficult to project costs in future years."
The budget request, expected to undergo close scrutiny by a Democratic-controlled Congress that has grown increasingly opposed to Bush's Iraq war policy, includes no cancellations of major weapons programs.
Rep. Ike Skelton, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, called the proposed war costs "staggering."
"We cannot provide an adequate national defense on the cheap, but neither can we afford to simply ratify the president's request without performing the due diligence and oversight our Constitution requires," Skelton said.
The budget would provide a 3 percent pay raise for members of the military. In a statement released with the budget request, the Pentagon said military pay has increased by 32 percent since 2001, when the war on terror began.
Among the services, the Army would get $130.1 billion, a 20 percent increase over this year. The Air Force would get an 8 percent increase, to $136.6 billion; the Navy's budget would rise by 9 percent, to $119.3 billion, and the Marine Corps would rise 4.3 percent, to $20.5 billion.
Steven Kosiak, an analyst with the private Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, said the president's proposed increases bring the Defense Department budget back up to where it was during the 1980s, a peak period for Pentagon spending, when calculated in today's dollars.
"An 11.3 percent increase is the kind of increase we had right after 9/11 and in the four or five years of the (President) Reagan buildup," Kosiak said. "So by historical perspectives, it's a pretty big jump."
© 2007 The Associated Press.
Veterans face budget increase, then big cuts
Some complain Bush trying to make long-term deficit figures look better.
WASHINGTON - The Bush administration’s budget assumes cuts to funding for veterans’ health care two years from now — even as badly wounded troops returning from Iraq could overwhelm the system.
Bush is using the cuts, critics say, to help fulfill his pledge to balance the budget by 2012. But even administration allies say the numbers are not real and are being used to make the overall budget picture look better.
After an increase sought for next year, the Bush budget would turn current trends on their head. Even though the cost of providing medical care to veterans has been growing rapidly — by more than 10 percent in many years — White House budget documents assume consecutive cutbacks in 2009 and 2010 and a freeze thereafter.
The proposed cuts are unrealistic in light of recent VA budget trends — its medical care budget has risen every year for two decades and 83 percent in the six years since Bush took office — sowing suspicion that the White House is simply making them up to make its long-term deficit figures look better.
“Either the administration is willingly proposing massive cuts in VA health care,” said Rep. Chet Edwards of Texas, chairman of the panel overseeing the VA’s budget. “Or its promise of a balanced budget by 2012 is based on completely unrealistic assumptions.”
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A spokesman for Larry Craig, R-Idaho, the top Republican on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, called the White House moves another step in a longtime “budgeting game.”
“No one who is knowledgeable about VA budgeting issues anticipates any cuts to VA funding. None. Zero. Zip,” said Craig spokesman Jeff Schrade.
Edwards said that a more realistic estimate of veterans costs is $16 billion higher than the Bush estimate for 2012.
In fact, even the White House doesn’t seem serious about the numbers. It says the long-term budget numbers don’t represent actual administration policies. Similar cuts assumed in earlier budgets have been repealed.
The veterans cuts, said White House budget office spokesman Sean Kevelighan, “don’t reflect any policy decisions. We’ll revisit them when we do the (future) budgets.”
The number of veterans coming into the VA health care system has been rising by about 5 percent a year as the number of people returning from Iraq with illnesses or injuries keep rising. Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans represent almost 5 percent of the VA’s patient caseload, and many are returning from battle with grievous injuries requiring costly care, such as traumatic brain injuries.
All told, the VA expects to treat about 5.8 million patients next year, including 263,000 veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan.
The White House budget office, however, assumes that the veterans’ medical services budget — up 83 percent since Bush took office and winning a big increase in Bush’s proposed 2008 budget — can absorb a 2 percent cut the following year and remain essentially frozen for three years in a row after that.
“It’s implausible,” Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said of the budget projections.
The White House made virtually identical assumptions last year — a big increase in the first year of the budget and cuts for every year thereafter to veterans medical care. Now, the White House estimate for 2008 is more than $4 billion higher than Bush figured last year.
And the VA has been known to get short-term estimates wrong as well. Two years ago, Congress had to pass an emergency $1.5 billion infusion for veterans health programs for 2005 and added $2.7 billion to Bush’s request for 2006. The VA underestimated the number of veterans, including those from Iraq and Afghanistan, who were seeking care, as well as the cost of treatment and long-term care.
The budget for hospital and medical care for veterans is funded for the current year at $35.6 billion, and would rise to $39.6 billion in 2008 under Bush’s budget. That’s about 9 percent. But the budget faces a cut to $38.8 billion in 2009 and would hover around that level through 2012.
The cuts come even as the number of veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars is expected to increase 26 percent next year.
In Bush’s proposal to balance the budget by 2012, he’s assuming that spending on domestic agency operating budgets will increase by about 1 percent each year.
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