WASHINGTON—Bush administration officials urged Congress on Thursday to restore a budget measure that would allow the State Department to draw up to $200 million from the Pentagon's coffers to expand a team of civilian specialists who would help rebuild war-torn countries before they become breeding grounds for terrorists.
"The sooner we can get programs started that allow people to see conditions improve for their families and their country, the better chance we have of helping a country get on the right trajectory to stability and peace," Carlos Pascual, the coordinator for the Office of Reconstruction and Stabilization, said in a hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Congress earmarked $7.7 million in emergency spending this year to fund the Office of Reconstruction and Stabilization, which was set up last year under the State Department.
The Bush administration wants Congress to set aside $124 million in fiscal 2006 for the office. Most of that will go to hiring permanent staff, conducting training exercises and to some initial projects in Sudan, where a recent peace accord ended more than two decades of civil war in the south.
Officials said they need the authority to use an additional $200 million in Pentagon money through fiscal year 2006, until a more permanent source of funding can be secured.
The Pentagon supports transferring the money. Its 2006 budget request contained a provision for the transfer, but the House of Representatives and Senate defense committees axed it.
Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he supported the measure.
Previous efforts in the Balkans, Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere have been "valiant," but "inadequate to deliver the necessary capabilities to deal speedily and efficiently with complex emergencies," Lugar said.
"In an age of terrorism, it is especially important that we be prepared to undertake these missions because we have seen how terrorists can exploit nations afflicted by lawlessness and desperate circumstances," he said. "They seek out such places to establish training camps, recruit new members and tap into a global market in weapons technology."
Initially, the office would employ about 100 people. Lugar said he hoped it would grow to a staff of 250 made up of civilian reconstruction specialists from the State Department, the U.S. Agency for International Development and retired military personnel.
Lugar and Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., the committee's top Democrat, drafted the initial legislation last year that set up the office.
"We should not reinvent the wheel every time we are faced with a stabilization crisis—cobbling together plans, procedures and personnel, as we've been doing," Biden said in a written statement. "We need to be forward-thinking, comprehensive and strategic."
President Bush said last month that the new office would help "the world's newest democracies make the transition to peace, freedom and a market economy."
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice declared at her confirmation hearings earlier this year that reconstruction and stabilization efforts are a "national-security priority," saying the United States needs enough people and money to manage two to three of the operations at the same time.
Pascual and other officials said the office also would work to head off crises. For example, it might go to work in such places as Nepal and the island of Mindanao, in the Philippines, where insurgents have been fighting, he said.
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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