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DoD May Cut, But Lawmakers May Bleed
Military.com  |  By Bryant Jordan  |  December 10, 2007
So far, neither the White House nor Congress appears ready to blink across the political battlefield that has caught Army civilian workers in the crossfire over a $189 billion defense funding bill, with hundreds of thousands of them now facing a blizzard of pink slips just in time for Christmas.

But while the layoffs would be directed by the Pentagon, ultimately it could be Congress feeling the heat as the Pentagon "games" the process to the disadvantage of the lawmakers - beginning with Christmas Eve layoff notices, according to a former career Senate staffer and now director of the Strauss Military Reform Project at the Center for Defense Information.

"The timing [for issuing layoff notices] is not mandated by any statute I'm aware of," said Wheeler. "It seems to me he [Gates] is scheduling the notices in the most plausibly painful timeframe possible, a week before Christmas."

Central to the political fight is the multibillion dollar supplemental to give the Pentagon money it needs to continue combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan after the beginning of the New Year. The Congressional Research Service, in a just released report, backs up the DoD's contention that the Army will run out of combat operational funds sometime early next year, in February or March.

Barring Congress passing a budget that Bush will sign, the Pentagon can fund operations after appropriations expire by invoking the Civil War-era "Feed and Forage Act" that permits the Army to obligate funds not yet appropriated for it. It can also take money intended for the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps' operation and maintenance or by slowing the rate of obligations in order to stretch out their availability, according to the CRS report.

Meanwhile, there is also another political question in how the Pentagon may handle the stalemate, said Wheeler. This involves what civilians would be let go.

"Somebody in DoD will be selecting who will be getting those notices. It won't be all civilian employees That's the second way they'll be gaming this problem.  I won't be at all surprised if they focus some of these layoff notices in politically sensitive states and districts."

President Bush and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates want a bill that does not include timetables for redeploying troops out of Iraq, but the bill has become stalled, prompting Gates to say he would have the Army begin identifying a total of some 200,000 government employees and contractors for layoffs.

Democrats have offered the White House a deal on the funding, but not one the administration is interested in. House Appropriations Committee Chairman Rep. David Obey, D-Wis., and defense appropriations subcommittee chairman Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., have said they could support Bush's supplemental funding request in its entirety if the White House would go along with a provision to begin troop withdrawals from major Iraq combat ops by the end of 2008.

That's a non-starter for the White House, setting the stage for a Christmas list of job cuts, hardly an image to generate the traditional holiday cheer.

Wheeler pointed out that Tina Jonas, the comptroller of the Defense Department "is not an accountant. She's an extremely politically acute person essentially the CEO of the Defense Department."

Says Wheeler, "Most people think [funding operations] is just a question of reprogramming.

"It's not. It's a question of how long can the Army and Marines use money intended for the 3rd and 4th quarters of fiscal 08 to keep the war operations going?"

In the end, Wheeler believes the White House will win out.

"The availability of war funding until February notwithstanding, the president and Secretary Gates have successfully applied significant political pressure on the Democrats in Congress to provide unencumbered funding to pursue the wars," he wrote in a Dec. 7 piece for CDI, after reading the Congressional Research Service Report. "It appears extremely likely that the Democratic leadership in Congress will comply with this pressure and provide the requested funding long before there is a real threat that any existing funding will run out."

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