WASHINGTON — The leaders of a House panel that oversees military spending said Wednesday they are drafting legislation that would pay for combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan through the rest of the year.
Rep. John Murtha of Pennsylvania, the top Democrat on the committee, predicted the proposal would be done by the end of the month.
Murtha and his Republican counterpart on the panel, Rep. C.W. Bill Young of Florida, said they hope lawmakers can put aside their differences on the war and focus on taking care of the troops.
"Our troops deserve better and I would hope that we can work together," Murtha told senior defense officials testifying before the House Appropriations defense subcommittee.
Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England said such a bill would be extremely helpful because of the Pentagon's need to plan ahead.
"This delay is degrading our ability to operate and sustain the force at home and in theater, and it is making it difficult to manage this department in a way that is fiscally sound," England said.
President Bush has requested about $189 billion for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan for the 2008 budget year, which began Oct. 1. Congress has approved only about $87 billion, leaving the Defense Department $102.5 billion short.
Democratic leaders have said they believe the military has enough money to last through April. They also suggested they want to hear first from Gen. David Petraeus, the top commander in Iraq, before approving more money. He is expected to testify by mid-April, likely the week of April 7.
Murtha told reporters last week that while the legislation would give the military the money it needs, he will recommend it demand troops leave Iraq by the end of the year _ a showstopper for the Bush administration. Murtha said he'll ask for other conditions such as that all deploying troops must be fully trained and equipped.
Similar bills scraped by on party line votes in the House last year only to fail in the Senate, where Democrats hold a more narrow margin of control and 60 votes are needed to overcome procedural hurdles. Unable to override a veto with the needed two-thirds majority, Democrats have been forced to strip anti-war language from past spending bills.
Young said he was hopeful the upcoming bill ultimately would provide the military with what it needs.
"The hardware that you need, the equipment that you need, training and training facilities that you need _ we're going to do that," he said.
England testified in place of Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who broke his right shoulder in a fall on an icy step at his home in Washington and was being treated at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
Despite the apparent bipartisan support afforded England, frustration over Iraq erupted in House and Senate foreign affairs committees where Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was assailed by Democratic lawmakers.
In heated exchanges, Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and Rep. Robert Wexler, D-Fla., took Rice to task for the enormous cost of the war, problems with the construction of the new U.S. Embassy in Baghdad and her role in the run-up to the conflict while she was Bush's national security adviser.
"How much more do you think we should spend in Iraq, especially since some of our states are already in a recession?" Boxer asked Rice in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
"I can't give you an answer on how much more we need to spend in Iraq. I can tell you what I think we need to achieve in Iraq," Rice said, prompting an angry retort from Boxer, who said, "You have no answer," and tried to cut off further responses.
"I am not going to answer how much we need to spend. Force levels are being determined by the president and commanders on the ground," Rice said. "I don't think there is an answer to your question."
"Well, that is a sad statement that the lack of planning, foresight, there is no way out, there is no end in sight and no one knows what they are doing, and no one can answer it," Boxer told Rice.
Later, before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rice nearly got into a shouting match with Wexler, who asked whether the Bush administration had exaggerated its intelligence on Iraq's weapons programs to mislead the country into war.
"You have questioned my integrity," Rice responded, her voice quivering. "Congressman, I take my integrity very seriously and I did not at any time make a statement that I knew to be false or that I thought to be false in order to pump up anything. Nobody wants to go to war."
Associated Press writer Matthew Lee contributed to this report.