By Laura Litvan
In this June 18, 2013, file photo, U.S. Marines monitor Eager Lion multinational military maneuvers in Quweira, 186 miles south of Amman, Jordan. Photographer: Maya Alleruzzo/AP Photo
President Barack Obama is fighting Congress over authorization to attack Syria. He may not have to fight for the money to pay for it.
The Pentagon has notified congressional appropriators that it won’t seek added funds to pay for a strike, said a Defense Department official and a Republican aide on the House Appropriations Committee. Both requested anonymity because they weren’t authorized to discuss the matter publicly.
Defense budget analysts say weapon systems like Tomahawk cruise missiles are already in the Pentagon’s inventory, and personnel costs are on the books. The added expenses of any limited operation probably will be small enough that the Pentagon can absorb it from existing funds, which include a wartime contingency budget of $93 billion this fiscal year.
Special Report: Syria Crisis
Two defense analysts estimated the total cost of the limited strike envisioned by Obama as between $300 million and $1 billion, depending on how many cruise missiles are launched and how long the attack lasts.
Ben Rhodes, the president’s deputy national security adviser, told reporters today that he doesn’t think an added funding request would be needed, saying that a strike the U.S. is contemplating is a “fraction of the magnitude” of past military actions in Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan. Secretary Chuck Hagel told the House Foreign Affairs Committee this week that the immediate costs of any operation would have little effect on the federal budget.
“We have looked at the different costs, depending on the different options, depending on the decision the president makes,” Hagel said. “We have given some ranges of this. It would be in the tens of millions of dollars, that kind of range.”
If Obama can make the case to Congress that a strike on Syria won’t bust the budget, it might help him win over wavering members worried about government spending. It also may help Obama by keeping the decision about military action separate from the debate over a temporary funding measure needed to keep the government operating after Sept. 30.
Some Republicans worry that added costs may stretch the Pentagon at a time when it’s already living with automatic budget cuts. Others in Congress are concerned that a limited strike would balloon in cost if it goes longer than expected.
“Everything we do costs money — there’s no free ride on any of these, so someone’s going to have to pay for this,” said Alaska Senator Mark Begich, a Democrat who will seek a second term in 2014.
The administration’s drive for a measure authorizing Obama to conduct a strike gained ground Sept. 4 when the Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved a resolution allowing a limited use of force. The House’s two top Republicans, Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor, said they would support military action.
Still, opposition from an unusual alliance of Tea Party Republicans and antiwar Democrats raises risks that the resolution won’t pass, particularly in the House. A Bloomberg tally shows only 22 House members are publicly supporting a military strike so far.
On the cost of a strike, the Pentagon has told appropriators that it could finance a limited action in part by tapping unspent money in a contingency fund designed to pay for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Republican aide said. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office said the fund has about $93 billion in it this fiscal year.
House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers, a Kentucky Republican, doesn’t object to handling the strike-operations funding this way, the aide said.
Gordon Adams, a professor at American University in Washington and former Office of Management and Budget official in President Bill Clinton’s administration, said an operation lasting several days probably would entail between three-dozen and 180 Tomahawk missiles.
If the U.S. were to later replace the missiles destroyed in an attack, it would probably come in the fiscal 2015 budget, amounting to as much as $200 million to $300 million, Adams said. That would be on top of his estimate of $100 million in costs for fuel and other unbudgeted items.
“If it’s that, it’s fundable completely out of the hide of the Pentagon’s budget,” he said.