Afghanistan war upends deficit-spending


Liberals are demanding that Congress find a way to pay for the additional 34,000 troops President Barack Obama is expected on Tuesday to announce he’s sending to Afghanistan, most likely through tax increases on the wealthy.

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But conservative Democrats are balking at a tax increase, and appear content to let Congress continue to finance the war through deficit spending.

An aide to a senior member of the fiscally conservative Blue Dog Coalition said the group is unlikely to endorse any tax increases to pay for a troop increase, and that Blue Dogs may not seek any offsets for what could amount to $40 billion a year in additional war funding.

The fact that Democrats are divided over how to advance Obama’s priorities without further aggravating the projected $1.38 billion budget deficit for 2010 is hardly a new development. From the $787 billion economic stimulus package to the healthcare debate, fiscally conservative Democrats repeatedly have pushed back against what they’ve seen as a cavalier attitude toward the deficit among liberal House leaders.

But on issues of war and peace, those roles are reversing.

House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.) and Democratic Caucus Chairman John Larson (Conn.) have introduced legislation that would pay for additional troops with a 1 percent surtax on taxpayers with incomes over $150,000.

“In this war, we have not had any sense of shared sacrifice,” Obey said on CNN on Sunday.

But Obey also indicated that his push for a war tax is as much about calling on Americans to “share” in the sacrifices that have historically been necessary during times of war as it is about demanding consistency from conservative Democrats who have cited the deficit in objecting to reform efforts favored by liberals.

“We’ve been told for a year that we need to pay for every dollar that it’s going to cost us to reform our healthcare system,” Obey said. “That’s about $900 billion over 10 years. If we wind up being committed in Afghanistan for eight to 10 years, that’s also going to approach $800 billion to $900 billion. And if we’re going to do that, it seems to me that if we’re being told we have to pay for healthcare, we certainly ought to pay for this effort as well.”

Conservative Democrats, many from districts carried in 2008 by Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) who face grim reelection prospects next year, have had a difficult time voting against any war measures, regardless of the pay-for.

Only one Blue Dog, Rep. Jim Cooper (Tenn.), was among the 51 Democrats who voted against a $95 billion spending bill for Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Eleven of the 52 Blue Dogs in Congress were among the 17 Democrats who voted for the most costly Republican alternative.

At the time, anti-war liberals refused to criticize their conservative colleagues. But that resolve is starting to wear.

“Those who care about the deficit should care about it now,” said Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus and the only member to vote against invading Afghanistan in 2001. “If you won’t support the healthcare package when people are desperate, how can you support increasing the number of troops in Afghanistan on strategy that isn’t going to work?”

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) last week said that the re-emergence of Afghanistan was responsible for an atmosphere of “serious unrest” within her caucus.

And while she refused to endorse Obey and Larson’s war tax, she said on a conference call with economists that a number of Democrats were concerned with how a major troop commitment in Afghanistan would affect “our ability to invest domestically with an eye to fiscal soundness.”

In a sign of how difficult it has been for even seasoned Democratic leaders to apply their core principles to Afghanistan, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), who has championed fiscal discipline within the leadership ranks, last week refused to say whether he believed a major Afghanistan initiative should be paid for at all.

“Until the president announces his strategy and makes a request, it is premature to judge how Congress will respond,” Hoyer told The Hill. “Once we receive a request, we will make a judgment then.”

Pelosi and Hoyer — along with Democratic and Republican caucus and committee leaders from the House and Senate — are scheduled to meet with Obama on Tuesday afternoon ahead of his speech on Afghanistan, which is to be delivered from West Point.

On Monday, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs was inundated with questions about the president’s Afghanistan decision, including repeated inquiries about where funds for 35,000 additional troops will come from. Gibbs said Obama will “certainly touch on the cost” of the war during his address to the nation Tuesday night but that Obama would not get overly detailed.

“I think you’ll hear the president acknowledge the resource requirements and the responsibilities and the trade-offs that are going to have to be discussed both here and, more importantly, on Capitol Hill, as they control the purse strings,” Gibbs said. “I don’t know if it gets down to the granularity of the exact dollar amount for each and everything.”

Gibbs avoided questions on the troop tax, saying that White House officials have not yet had “extensive” discussions on those proposals.

“Those discussions, once the president has a policy and can put a price tag on [it], I think you’ll see those more in earnest,” he said.


Mike Soraghan and Sam Youngman contributed to this article.