Congress casts wary eye on Obama's Afghanistan buildup

McClatchy NewspapersDecember 1, 2009 

WASHINGTON — A wary, divided Congress raised serious questions Tuesday about President Barack Obama's new strategy for the war in Afghanistan, as well as its timetables and his plans to pay for the troop buildup.

Obama's biggest challenge will be his fellow Democrats, who control 60 of the Senate's 100 seats and 258 of the 435 seats in the House of Representatives. Worried about retaining their majority in next November's elections at a time when polls show the public turning against them and the war in Afghanistan, they are by no means ready to throw their support behind Obama's plan to escalate the U.S. war effort.

"Till there's a full debate, we don't know where individual senators will end up," said Sen. Robert Casey, D-Pa., a moderate. "There's a ways to go. Just as the president engaged in a thorough review, Congress has to do the same."

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., voiced similar thoughts. "I'll reserve judgment until I hear . . . testimony," he said. Top administration officials are to testify before congressional committees Wednesday and Thursday.

More strident antiwar lawmakers weren't as reticent. Several said they were contemplating ways to derail or slow the process for funding a 30,000 U.S. troop increase in Afghanistan.

Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., said he intended to pursue all options to block funding for the escalation. Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., the chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus and a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said she was looking for more co-sponsors for her bill to prohibit taxpayer funds from being spent to send more combat troops to Afghanistan.

Said liberal Sen. Bernard Sanders, a Vermont independent: "My view is, in the middle of a severe recession, with 17 percent of our people unemployed or underemployed, with one-quarter of the kids in this country living on food stamps, I am not sympathetic to spending $100 million a year on Afghanistan, plus what we're spending in Iraq."

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Florida Democrats backed the strategy.

Sen. Bill Nelson called it a "sensible plan, both short- and- long term, to empower the Afghan people and allow for U.S. troops to complete their mission and come home."

Rep. Kendrick Meek noted that Obama didn't start the war, saying that his "strategic review and subsequent policy decision on Afghanistan puts us on a course for success that we lacked for many years."

Republicans generally gave Obama high marks for deciding to send 30,000 more troops.

"If you would have told me a year into the president's administration (that) he would have doubled our presence in Afghanistan ... plus not reduce our troops meaningfully in Iraq ... I would have a hard time believing it," Dan Senor, who was a spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq under former President George W. Bush, said in a conference call arranged by the Republican National Committee. "So I'm pleasantly surprised."

That said, several Republican lawmakers had a serious reservation about Obama's plan: They disliked setting a timetable for beginning to withdraw troops.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said he had "deep concerns about setting a date certain," while Sen. Kit Bond, R-Mo., said, "It's like saying you're going to play the first three quarters with your first team and then take them off the field."

McCain said that Obama should order U.S. forces to leave only when the mission had achieved success. When McCain was asked how he defined success there, he said, "The same way we defined success in Iraq: Put down the opposition and make them take a knee."

Some Democrats agreed.

"I never have supported that and I never will. You don't tell the enemy when you're leaving," said Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb.

Congress' main weapon for stopping, or changing, the troop buildup is its control over funding. It has three alternatives to pay for the troop increase: raising taxes, adding to the federal budget deficit or cutting spending on other programs.

Republicans want to slash spending; McCain proposes cutting scheduled 2010 increases in discretionary spending. He said his plan would free $60 billion, well above the estimated $40 billion cost of Obama's proposal.

A plan to pay for the troop increase with a surtax on income is gaining popularity in the House, however, particularly among Democratic leaders. Wisconsin Rep. David Obey, the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, and Connecticut Rep. John Larson, the chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, are pushing the idea.

Following Obama's speech, Obey issued a statement that said in part:

"The cost of conducting the campaign in Afghanistan could approach $90 billion this year and we're told a long-term, multi-year commitment is necessary for success. That could cost anywhere from $500 billion to $900 billion over the next decade, which 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.

"If this endeavor is to be pursued, we must have a renewed sense of shared sacrifice — because right now only military families are paying the cost of this war. A progressive war surtax is the fairest way to pay for it — fairest to working class families and fairest to military families."

Hoyer wouldn't rule out a surtax.

"I generally am in favor of paying for what we do," he said.

He also left the door open for an emergency-spending bill, however. His general preference to pay-as-you-go "is complicated by the economic crisis," he said.

Wariness from Republicans and conservative Democrats also could complicate the outlook for a surtax.

"It's a bad idea," Nelson said. Rep. John Spratt, D-S.C., the chairman of the House Budget Committee, also opposes it.

The emergency funding approach also is controversial, however. The federal deficit hit $1.4 trillion last year, and the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office expects it to reach that record figure again in fiscal 2010.

The most politically viable approach is to consider a "supplemental appropriation," an emergency spending bill that would increase the deficit.

The Bush administration used this device repeatedly to help pay for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. After Obama used it in April, his press secretary, Robert Gibbs, said flatly: "This will be the last supplemental for Iraq and Afghanistan." He said that Obama's vow to change the way Washington worked required war costs to be included in the regular budget.

(Lesley Clark contributed to this article.)

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