WASHINGTON– U.S. lawmakers have informed Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates that they expect to pass the remaining $108 billion of the fiscal 2008 budget by their Memorial Day recess on May 24, Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said at a Pentagon news conference today. Video

Gates sent a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi yesterday to say he was “encouraged” to hear that Congress intends to pass the remainder of the current fiscal year’s budget. But he added that military officials will continue to plan for contingencies if the money isn’t appropriated.

If the bill isn’t approved or if President Bush won’t sign it, the military will be forced to “reprogram” money from the Air Force and Navy to pay soldiers, because the Army can sustain its payroll only through June 15, Morrell told reporters.

But the reprogramming measures aren’t a cure-all, Morrell noted. “None of those efforts buy us much time — we’re talking about a few weeks,” he said. After that, he said, the department faces the possibility of troops in Iraq and Afghanistan not getting paid.

The $108 billion is “urgently needed” to finance the global war on terror through the fiscal year that ends Sept. 30, Morrell said. “We here at the Pentagon have been financing those wars by borrowing from our payroll accounts,” he said, “but those accounts are about to run dry.”

If the funding isn’t approved, the department may issue civilian furlough notices after June 1.

“We’re getting down to crunch time,” Morrell said. He added that Gates is “taking the leaders at their word that this will be done by Memorial Day.”

The White House requested an additional, or “supplemental,” $70 billion last week to serve as a bridge in funding into fiscal 2009, which begins Oct. 1 of this year.

In other topics at the briefing, Morrell defended the military’s mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles after a reporter asked how two soldiers were killed in an MRAP vehicle in April. Morrell declined to give the cause of death of the soldiers, saying such specific information amounts to “aiding and abetting the enemy.”

“People question the survivability of these vehicles,” Morrell said. “But I can tell you that nobody in this building and nobody downrange is at all questioning the enhanced survivability that MRAPs provide. There have been over 100 attacks on MRAP vehicles, and a relatively small number of injuries related to those attacks — and far fewer deaths — associated with them.

“We are facing an agile and deadly enemy in Iraq who is constantly adjusting to meet our new and improved vehicles that we put in the field,” Morrell said. “There is no vehicle that we can produce that will completely protect our troops. There is no hull that we can build that is impenetrable. These MRAPs are as good as can be made today. That is why commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan are requesting more of them and raving about their increased protection.”

The Defense Department met its goal of delivering more than 1,500 MRAPs in theater by the end of 2007. Since then, the total delivery has reached more than 5,500.

Also at the briefing, Morrell dismissed suggestions that Marines may be redirected from Iraq to Afghanistan this year. “We’ve made a commitment to our troops and their families for a 12-month ‘dwell time,’” Morrell said, referring to a Pentagon directive that troops will have at least a year at home before being deployed again.

While the administration and commanders in Afghanistan are interested in increasing troop strength there, military leaders won’t consider additions beyond what has already been approved until troop strength in Iraq is fewer than 15 brigade-size combat units, Morrell said. Such a transfer of troops “is not seriously being considered in this building,” he said.

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