BY DAVID ALEXANDER
(Reuters) – Top Pentagon officials on Wednesday defended their 2015 war-spending request before skeptical lawmakers, some of whom called the $58.6 billion plan a “slush fund” to offset defense cuts at home and others who worried the funding-level was too small.
Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work told the House of Representatives Armed Services Committee that the Pentagon’s 2015 spending plans for the Afghanistan war were a third less than this year’s and $100 million less than four years ago.
Work and other officials also insisted the Pentagon had not tried to circumvent congressional spending caps by stuffing the war-funding request, which is not subject to the same spending limits, with items cut from its $496 billion base budget.
“None of it is used for base budget shortfalls,” said Michael McCord, the Pentagon comptroller.
But lawmakers were skeptical of the request, which is usually submitted along with the president’s budget in the early part of the year but was delayed due to uncertainty over a deal to keep U.S. troops in Afghanistan after the end of the year.
“I don’t know why you need this money. It’s nothing but a slush fund anyway,” said Representative Walter Jones, a Republican who represents the North Carolina district that includes the Camp Lejeune Marine Corps Base.
Democrats also expressed concern, with Representative Tammy Duckworth of Illinois wondering whether the new counterterror account was “another slush fund” and Representative Adam Smith of Washington wondering about the lack of parameters on how the money would be spent.
Other lawmakers criticized the size of the request and the notion that the war-funding budget should be cut in proportion to the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, which President Barack Obama has decided to reduce to 9,800 by year’s end.
“My concern isn’t that the (budget) number is too high,” said Representative Buck McKeon, the Republican chairman of the panel. “My concern is it’s too low – both this and the base budget.”
Work said of the total $58.6 billion war-funding request, $53.7 billion would be for the Afghan war and related conflicts and nearly $5 billion would be for new initiatives, including a Counterterrorism Partnerships Fund.
Of the $53.7 billion, $11 billion would support U.S. forces in Afghanistan, $18.1 billion would be for military activity in the region directly related to the Afghanistan war, $9.2 billion would repair or replace equipment used in the conflict and $4.1 billion would support the Afghan National Security Forces.
Work said the new Counterterrorism Partnership Funds would include $4 billion for the Defense Department, much of which would be used for the U.S. military’s response to the Syrian civil war.
He said $2.5 billion would be for counterterrorism support and $1 billion would be to help Syria’s neighbors with security issues related to the conflict. Some $500 million would go to train certain Syrian rebel groups.