When President Bush's budget for the 2009 fiscal year was sent to Congress this week, Secretary Gates defended the $515 billion request from the Pentagon.
In the overall figure, he noted, are billions of dollars to support U.S. military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and the administration's global war on terrorism. "A $70 billion emergency bridge fund that would cover war costs into the next calendar year," he said.
The story behind that figure is the ongoing struggle between President Bush and the Democratic-controlled Congress over war funding.
Last year, the president asked for about $190 billion in a supplemental request outside the regular defense budget for war costs in the current 2008 fiscal year. The amount approved by Congress, just over $86 billion, left a large gap.
When Gates and military Joint Chiefs Chairman Admiral Michael Mullen appear before the House and Senate armed services committees, they will be pressed for harder cost projections, as Congress continues to assess the impact for the U.S. economy of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts.
White House Budget Director Jim Nussle was asked this week if the Bush administration has a realistic hope it can obtain its Pentagon regular budget and supplemental war funding requests from an opposition Congress. "It's worth whatever we need to spend and we have made, I think, a very careful determination of what that is. So, I don't believe it is just a negotiation point. I think it is what it takes for us to be safe, and to be the kind of super power that can maintain that safety," he said.
Asked why budget figures do not appear to reflect a reduction in costs because of the eventual withdrawal of about 30,000 troops from Iraq to pre-military surge levels, expected to be complete later this year, Nussle would only refer reporters to the Pentagon.
And while the question of troop levels will be a key topic for lawmakers, in the context of questioning on the overall Pentagon budget, Gates may not provide much in the way of enlightenment.
Media reports quoting testimony prepared for the House and Senate hearings say he will point to what he calls significant variables weighing against making any realistic estimate of how much Congress may be asked for in the final year of the Bush administration.
Based on numerous supplemental requests for Iraq and Afghanistan in recent years, members of Congress expect the $70 billion bridge fund to be followed by additional requests to sustain U.S. forces.
As for the $100 billion or so in 2008 supplemental funds that has been held up by bickering between Capitol Hill and the White House, congressional Democrats are looking to testimony in April from the U.S. commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus.
That will provide Congress with an update on progress by Iraqi forces toward shouldering more of the security burden, what that means for U.S. troop numbers, and what Americans can expect to be paying as President Bush leaves office and a new administration takes over in 2009.