Gates says budget flap threatens readiness

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OTTAWA -- Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, escalating his budget battle with Congress, has issued an unusually passionate warning that the impasse over this year's federal spending package threatens the military's readiness to fight.

"I have a crisis on my doorstep," Mr. Gates said, making the case that stopgap spending bills in place since Sept. 30 could leave the Pentagon $23 billion short of the money needed for operations, training and maintenance. "Frankly, that's how you hollow out a military, even in wartime. This has to do with the security of the country."

Mr. Gates was aboard an Air Force jet on his way to meetings in Ottawa with his Canadian counterpart when he made his remarks to reporters late Wednesday. Mr. Gates, a former CIA director who rarely shows emotion in public, was visibly agitated as he read from a full page of handwritten notes to urge Congress to pass a 2011 spending bill before opening the debate on his proposals for 2012 and beyond.

The defense secretary also revealed one steep cut in Pentagon spending in the coming budget for the Afghan and Iraq wars that might help persuade Congress to approve its regular budget. He said the supplementary spending request to pay for operations in Afghanistan and Iraq for 2012 would be $39 billion less than this year, dropping to $120 billion from $159 billion.

Many on Capitol Hill are criticizing his proposals to cancel weapons programs and trim the Defense Department bureaucracy in 2012 and beyond, but Mr. Gates dismissed those criticisms as idle talk unless members of Congress break the stalemate and pass this year's spending plan. Otherwise, he said, the military could face disruptive, ad hoc cuts to meet the temporary spending cap.

There is no end in sight to the partisan fights over federal spending that have prevented Congress from passing a 2011 federal budget four months into the fiscal year. The stalemate could worsen; congressional Republicans seem divided -- those who seek to protect military spending and those who want everything on the table.

The current temporary spending bill, the fourth continuing resolution since Sept. 30, expires in early March. Congressional leaders say it's possible that the government will use these stopgap measures indefinitely.

That prospect has so frustrated Mr. Gates that he took the unusual step of summoning reporters on his Canada flight for a detailed session on the risks of cutting defense spending ad hoc via temporary measures.

Mr. Gates cited members of Congress who oppose the $78 billion in cuts he has proposed over the next five years, including canceling weapons programs and trimming the size of the Army and Marine Corps; critics say the plan will weaken national security.

Continuing to operate at lower spending levels under the stopgap budgets, Mr. Gates said, would force the Pentagon to reduce flying hours for combat pilots, steaming days for warships and time on practice ranges for troops at home.

The Pentagon request for its 2011 base budget was $549 billion. The continuing resolution has set the level at $526 billion. The defense appropriations bill that would be considered in the next omnibus is $538 billion.


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