WASHINGTON — The White House said Thursday that it planned to ask Congress for an additional $70 billion to pay for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, driving the cost of military operations in the two countries to $120 billion this year, the highest since the Sept. 11 attacks.
Most of the new money would go to the war in Iraq, which already has cost an estimated $250 billion since the U.S. invasion in March 2003. The additional spending, along with other war funds the Bush administration will seek separately in its regular budget next week, would push the price tag for combat and nation-building since Sept. 11, 2001, to nearly half a trillion dollars -- approaching the cost of the 13-year-long Vietnam War.
Congress has granted all previous administration requests for war funds, and this one is expected to be no different. But budget analysts said the size of the newest request could make it more difficult for the Bush administration to get any new tax cuts through Congress this year. The cost of military operations in 2006 is $35 billion higher than what Congress had estimated a few months ago the Defense Department would need this year.
The higher costs are occurring even as the Pentagon is planning to reduce troop levels in Iraq in coming months, reflecting the continuing wear and damage to military equipment in desert combat, the need to upgrade protection for U.S. soldiers and the effort to train and equip Iraqi forces. No large-scale reconstruction projects are included in the spending, officials said.
The rising costs contrast starkly with projections before the war. Former White House economic advisor Lawrence B. Lindsey predicted in September 2002 that the war would cost between $100 billion and $200 billion, drawing administration ire for such a high estimate and eventually resigning his post.
"People in the White House said [Lindsey] was way off," said budget expert Steven Kosiak of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, an independent defense research group in Washington. "It turns out he was. But just not in the direction they thought."
In the spring of 2003, top administration officials, including then-Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz, said Iraq's vast oil reserves would help defray the costs of an extended U.S. stay. Nearly three years later, oil revenue is far below expectations and the Iraqi government can pay for only a small fraction of its reconstruction.
The White House also told Congress on Thursday that it would ask for $18 billion in supplemental funds for Hurricane Katrina relief -- bringing to $105 billion the amount planned for administration spending on Gulf Coast recovery.
The federal coordinator for Katrina recovery, Donald E. Powell, did not specify how the funds would be spent. Aides said they would release details within a few weeks.
Democrats on Capitol Hill were quick to question how the funds would be allocated.
"We certainly welcome additional federal assistance," said Sen. Mary L. Landrieu (D-La.). "But I am highly concerned that the administration's proposal, which lacks details, will put more money into dysfunctional federal bureaucracies like FEMA and won't adequately address urgent needs such as housing, levees and flood protection."
The war spending plans were detailed in a conference call with reporters held by Joel D. Kaplan, a deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget. Kaplan said the request would pay for military operations, training of soldiers and police in Iraq and Afghanistan, repairing and replacing equipment, and running U.S. embassies in Iraq and Afghanistan. Kaplan said the money would also go toward buying new equipment to help protect U.S. troops from roadside bombs -- the deadliest weapon of Iraq insurgents.
The $70 billion that the administration plans to seek would be added to $50 billion approved by Congress in December as an advance on 2006 expenses, making this year the most expensive yet for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which are tabulated together in federal legislation.
Congress has approved five emergency spending measures since Sept. 11, 2001, and other federal funds have been moved into the effort to wage battle in Iraq and Afghanistan. In all, more than $400 billion will have been set aside or spent by the end of this year.
The administration plans to seek the additional $70 billion as special "supplemental" funding -- an emergency procedure outside the regular budget process that has stirred controversy on Capitol Hill, where critics have complained that the war costs have grown more predictable as the Iraq effort enters its fourth year next month.
But as in previous years, the supplemental budget request also will ask Congress to pay for programs that are not directly related to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Kaplan said part of the supplemental funding -- he did not say how much -- would go toward the Army's effort to convert its forces into smaller, more deployable combat units.