No clear plan for paying for Obama's Afghanistan troop increase

By Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 2, 2009; A11

President Obama's decision to send 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan ensures what was already inevitable: The cost of the wars in that country and Iraq is about to exceed $1 trillion. Less certain for Congress is how to pay for it.

The new Afghanistan strategy will cost at least $30 billion more than current spending, and Democrats were divided Tuesday on what to do. Key leaders rejected a proposal from liberal members to impose a "war tax" that would hit workers earning as little as $30,000 a year, but they offered no plan of their own.

Before leaving for the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., Obama huddled with about 30 top lawmakers from both parties at the White House, winning support from key Republicans for the new strategy. "Republicans are going to be supportive of funding for these troops," Rep. Jerry Lewis (Calif.), the senior Republican on the House Appropriations Committee, said after the meeting.

But Lewis rejected calls for increased taxes and instead urged Obama to pare back money to federal agencies, many of which are slated to receive double-digit increases in funding for fiscal 2010. Other Republicans suggested using unspent stimulus funds.

GOP support could be critical to the new strategy's success on Capitol Hill, where overall cost concerns have grown in the run-up to Obama's announcement. Congress is days away from approving the annual Pentagon spending bill, which includes about $130 billion in funds for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Once that bill is approved, the Pentagon's total tab for the wars will come to more than $1 trillion since the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan eight years ago, according to the Congressional Research Service.

A third of those funds have gone to the Afghan front, but that region is quickly becoming the more expensive battleground. If the new funding is approved, the total cost for next year's operations in Afghanistan will come to about $100 billion. That's up from $43 billion for fiscal 2008 and $55 billion for fiscal 2009, according to the research service.

Obama's proposal would place more than 200,000 troops altogether in Afghanistan and Iraq. If the troop level across both nations averages 75,000 through the next decade, the operations will cost an additional $867 billion -- more than the $848 billion health-care legislation the Senate is considering.

In his speech, Obama said that "we simply cannot afford to ignore the price of these wars" and vowed to work with Congress on the cost of his strategy.

While Congress has waged extended fights in previous years over supplemental funding legislation for the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, more recently the costs have been included in annual defense budget requests. Obama's troop request is not included in the Pentagon's budget, so a new round of debate over funding appears likely.

Liberal Democrats, who largely oppose the wars, argued that the new troop deployment would crowd out funding for domestic priorities. Led by House Appropriations Committee Chairman David R. Obey (D-Wis.), they have vowed to force a new tax to finance Obama's strategy, setting up a confrontation with other Democrats.

Minutes after Obama finished speaking, Obey issued a statement opposing the troop buildup and warning that the cost of the military efforts "could devour our ability to pay for the actions necessary to rebuild our own economy. We simply cannot afford to shortchange the crucial investments we need in education, job training, healthcare, and energy independence. The biggest threat to our long-term national security is a stunted economy."

Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) and House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) pledged earlier in the day to find ways to fund the war effort but did not offer specifics. "I generally am in favor of paying for what we do, but because of the economic crisis that confronts us, that [war tax] effort is complicated," Hoyer told reporters.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) had promised antiwar Democrats in the spring that they would not have to vote on another supplemental war-funding bill, something they were keenly aware of Tuesday. "What I fear is we're getting sucked into a war without end," Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) said.

McGovern said the only way to pass the funding measure might be to use a parliamentary move that would split the legislation into two parts, one including humanitarian and diplomatic aid -- which would probably pass on a bipartisan vote -- and another including the military funding. Pelosi used such a move in 2007 and 2008 to approve war funds largely on GOP support.

Staff writers Perry Bacon Jr., Walter Pincus and Ann Scott Tyson contributed to this report.

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