Congress will likely hold off on sending US President George W. Bush money for Iraq until early next year, pushing the Pentagon to the brink of an accounting nightmare and deepening Democrats' conflict with the White House on the war.
Democrats say the tough approach is needed.
"Everybody knows that the president is stuck in his place, a place where he wants a 10-year war," said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat.
This week, the House passed, 218 to 203, a US$50 billion bill that would pay for combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan but require that US troops start coming home. The measure sets a goal of ending combat by Dec. 15 next year.
The Senate planned to vote as early as yesterday on the measure, although it was not expected to pass. Democrats hold a narrow majority and 60 votes are needed to advance.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat, said on Thursday that if Congress was unable to pass legislation that sets a timetable on the war -- the most likely scenario -- they would drop the issue until next year. In the meantime, Democrats say, the Pentagon can eat into its US$471 billion annual budget without being forced to take drastic steps.
"The days of a free lunch are over," said Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates said on Thursday that unless Congress passes funding for the Iraq war within days, he will direct the Army and Marine Corps to begin developing plans to lay off employees and terminate contracts early next year.
Gates, who met with members of Congress on Wednesday, said that he does not have the money or the flexibility to move funding around to adequately cover the costs of the continuing operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"There is a misperception that this department can continue funding our troops in the field for an indefinite period of time through accounting maneuvers, that we can shuffle money around the department. This is a serious misconception," Gates said.
As a result, he said that he is faced with the undesirable task of preparing to cease operations at Army bases by mid-February, and lay off about 100,000 defense department employees and an equal number of civilian contractors. A month later, he said, the Marines would have to make similar moves.
Some members of Congress believe the Pentagon can switch enough money to cover the war accounts, Gates said. But he added that he only has the flexibility to transfer about US$3.7 billion -- which is just one week's worth of war expenses. Lawmakers, he said, may not understand how complicated and restrictive the situation is.
Meanwhile, US State Department officials on Thursday said that they were close to filling all vacancies at the US embassy in Baghdad and in Iraqi provinces with volunteering Foreign Service officers, but that they were not abandoning a policy to order diplomats to Iraq if there was a need in the future.
As of Thursday night, officials said that only three or four positions of about 50 remained open and that those were expected to be filled once volunteers for those jobs had been formally approved.
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said she remained committed to a policy of "directed assignments" if she found it necessary at a later time to fill positions in Iraq. She also said that Foreign Service officers, who are not permitted to carry guns, should be subject to the same requirements to accept assignments as the military.