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Senate Committee Scrutinizes Pentagon Budget

Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Peter Pace faced a day of tough questioning Wednesday before a Senate committee as they tried to sell the latest Pentagon budget to a skeptical audience.

Gates, appearing before the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee, made an analogy symbolizing the complexity of funding the Iraq war, comparing the situation to "10,000 faucets all running money."

"Some of them run at one rate, some of them run at another, and they all draw on one big pool of money behind them," Gates said in response to a question from Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA). "Turning them on and off with precision and on a day-to-day basis, or even a month-to-month basis, gets very difficult."

The Bush administration, which has requested $90 billion to fund the war through September, has been under increasing pressure to show a timetable for withdrawing troops from Iraq.

Last week, the president vetoed $124.2 billion legislation that would have funded the war while requiring troops to start coming home this fall. On Wednesday, White House spokesman Tony Snow reiterated that the president would veto any such bill that crossed his desk in the future.

Congress wants the White House to show progress on a series of benchmarks that show the way for withdrawal of some 150,000 troops in Iraq. Specifically, Congress would like to see a roadmap of economic, political and security milestones that point the way toward an exit strategy.

Gates said the Pentagon isn't set up to deal for the temporary funding measures proposed by Congressional Democrats for the Iraq war, adding that the Defense Department isn't agile enough to manage a "two-month appropriation" linked to progress on the benchmarks.

Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) raised specific concerns about the drawdown in personnel and equipment in the state National Guards. Many states, such as Maryland, face potentially critical shortfalls that would prevent them from responding effectively to disasters on home soil, she said.

"The Maryland National Guard faces serious equipment shortfalls, and in the event of a natural disaster or an attack in the National Capital Region, they (do not) … feel that they would have the operational capability to respond (effectively)," Mikulski said.

National Guard readiness nationwide stood at about 56 percent, Gates said in response to questioning. He said about $22 billion had been budgeted for the National Guard from next fiscal year until 2013.

Pace told the subcommittee that the Pentagon was committed to restoring readiness to the historical average of about 70 percent, and he rebuffed concerns that the leadership in the states' National Guard units was feeding him an unrealistically rosy picture of troop and material readiness.

"The decisions have been made, collectively, to get it up to 76 percent," the Marine general said. "But the leadership in the Guard has been very forthcoming with what their deficiencies are. They have it laid out very specifically."

Meanwhile, Vice President Dick Cheney was in Iraq meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus.

Underscoring the security concerns facing Iraq, a suicide bomber killed at least 14 people and wounded more than 80 in Kurdistan in the country's north. An explosion also rocked the so-called Green Zone in Baghdad, where Cheney was visiting.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Neuman is a reporter and editor, working mainly on breaking news for NPR's digital and radio platforms.