WASHINGTON -- As the Persian Gulf war speeds to an apparently inexorable conclusion, members of Congress are newly anxious that the United States will be stuck with the bill.
"We have this 'check is in the mail' syndrome -- especially with some of the countries that have the most ability to pay, the most at stake in keeping the oil flowing," complained Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt.
Moreover, members also wonder if the Pentagon isn't padding its cost estimates, seeking to shuffle Desert Storm funds into an all-purpose Pentagon slush account aimed at bolstering U.S. military stockpiles instead of replacing materiel actually destroyed in war.
"If truth is the first casualty of war, then certainly the second category is sane and rational military spending," said Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa.
In testimony yesterday before the Senate Appropriations Committee, White House Budget Director Richard G. Darman and Deputy Secretary of Defense Donald Atwood Jr. sought to assure lawmakers that $53 billion worth of allied commitments to the war effort would be honored.
Moreover, they promised skeptical panel members, mostly Democrats, that the Bush administration would not use the war as an excuse to inflate the size of the peacetime defense budget beyond the level agreed to in last year's sweeping deficit-reduction agreement.
"There is no intention to go beyond the proposed '92 inventory level," Mr. Atwood said.
Nevertheless, committee Chairman Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., promised that Congress would examine closely President Bush's $15 billion request for financing Operation Desert Storm to make sure the money actually was needed.
"This committee will do everything it can to see that all necessary authority and funding are provided to the president in a timely manner, to enable our military to carry out its mission," Mr. Byrd promised, before adding that his colleagues would want to make sure the amounts requested by the White House reflected the Pentagon's actual war costs "over and above the amounts already provided for normal peacetime operations."
President Bush's proposal, released last Friday, seeks $15 billion in federal funds and congressional authorization to use all $53.5 billion in pledged aid from allied nations -- enough, the White House says, to finance the war through the end of March.
The request does not seek the replacement of major equipment such as aircraft or tanks. Administration officials have said that lost weapons may not have to be replaced because reductions were already planned as part of the scheduled five-year reduction in the Pentagon budget.
But it does seek funds for everything from shrink-wrap machines for soldiers' rations to weapons that have been heavily used in the gulf conflict -- including $324 million to buy 500 Patriot missiles and $545 million for 400 Tomahawk cruise missiles.
Senator Byrd complained that allied countries had delivered only $14.9 billion in cash and services out of the $53.5 billion in promised assistance, singling out the United Arab Emirates and Japan as countries he said could easily afford to send financial assistance to the United States.
His comments were echoed by other panel members, such as Sen. Ernest F. Hollings, D-S.C., who proposed slapping a tariff on Japanese imports if that country's parliament failed to approve a $9 billion support package.
"You can come back with a little dignified, realistic gulf tariff bill -- we'll pass it unanimously -- and just take it and put a tariff on their imports of whatever's necessary," Mr. Hollings said.
Mr. Harkin wondered why the Pentagon had ordered such large quantities of certain items -- for example, Patriot missiles, which had protected skies over Israel and Saudi Arabia from Iraqi Scud missiles.
He estimated that 140 Patriots had been fired during the course of the conflict. "It does not seem as though what we've expended over there would warrant 500 new ones," he said.
Mr. Atwood and Mr. Darman said the administration had chosen conservative estimates, suggesting that the Pentagon would not actually buy more weapons than would be needed.