Money for Afghan Troop Surge Divides Democrats
Policy + Politics

Money for Afghan Troop Surge Divides Democrats

This is precisely the showdown congressional Democrats wanted to avoid: President Obama and his plan to spend more money on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq vs. anti-war party liberals and deficit hawks. As they struggle to maintain unity while fending off Republican charges of fiscal irresponsibility, Democratic leaders want to get the bill through the Senate by the end of this week, in advance of a weeklong congressional recess. The bill would provide $45.4 billion in mostly borrowed funds, largely to support the troop surge in Afghanistan, along with money to replenish a domestic disaster fund and provide relief to Haiti. Congress has provided about $230 billion in war spending on Obama's watch.

But the measure has generated particular concern in the House, where anti-war Democrats say they will oppose it. "I think there are a lot of us who believe that our policies in Afghanistan are wrong," said Rep. Jim McGovern of Massachusetts, a leading anti-war Democrat. "Our leadership understands that." Some add that the funds would go better to pay teachers and first responders or protect the environment. "Just think where we could be spending that money," said Lynn Woolsey, D-Calif., a co-chair of the House Progressive Caucus.

In addition to money earmarked to replenish a domestic disaster fund and provide relief to Haiti, Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, is seeking to add $23 billion in aid to state and local governments for education, though the Senate stripped out similar language from an earlier House-passed jobs bill. "They're going to vote on the supplemental for the war; that's borrowed money," Harkin said. "I guess it's all right to borrow money for wars but it's not all right to borrow money so our kids can go to school. Tell me how that makes sense."

The administration supports Harkin's effort, but some Democrats have a different orientation toward the spending: Members of the fiscally conservative House Blue Dog Coalition argue that it should be paid for with tax hikes or cuts elsewhere in the budget, not funded with new borrowing. The war money is designated "emergency" spending and thus exempt from budget rules such as the pay-as-you-go requirements enacted earlier this year. With Congress set to vote this week on a separate tax cut and benefit bill that is largely not paid for, Blue Dog Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tenn., said he feels like the whole pay-go principle is "going out the window," though he did not go so far as to say he'd vote against the war spending measure.

Supporters of the effort, like Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Daniel K. Inouye, D-Hawaii, are trying to convince their colleagues that the bill is neither too big nor too small. "I want to inform all my colleagues that this bill is neither a bailout nor a stimulus," he told the committee. "Instead it is the minimum necessary to meet emergency requirements and the cost of war." Inouye's panel unanimously approved its version of the war bill May 13.

While the Iraq and Afghanistan war costs have for the most part never been paid for with tax hikes or cuts elsewhere in the budget, Obama promised to include them as part of the regular defense budget. Under President George W. Bush, Congress approved the funding through supplemental emergency spending bills. But Obama's call for 30,000 more troops in Afghanistan means he has to come back to Congress, which has also irked the liberals and forced standalone votes on the war.

"I believe we were promised the last supplemental was one or two ago," Woolsey said.

But unlike the fierce fights over Iraq policy that began when Democrats took control of Congress in 2007, Congress' reaction to Obama's requests has been more subdued. Rather than attempting to set withdrawal timelines, McGovern and Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., have proposed legislation that would require the administration to put forth a plan to end the war. The House defeated a similar proposal, 138-278, last June, though a majority of Democrats approved it. (In March, the House defeated, 65-356, a call for withdrawal in 30 days, with even many Democrats arguing that such action would be hasty.)

Congress has provided close to $1.1 trillion for both wars since 2001. Since Obama took office, Congress provided nearly $100 billion for the wars last June and another $130 billion as part of last year's regular defense budget in December. Obama has requested $159 billion in war spending for the coming fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1.

A liberal-conservative split among Democrats has also kept them from establishing a budget blueprint for the next fiscal year, which was due April 15. Consideration of a budget also could bring politically difficult votes that put members on record endorsing a plan that includes years' more red ink.

"People on both sides know that some really tough decisions have to be made. And their choices are not politically popular," McGovern said. "There's a reluctance to just put it all out there and have the other side demagogue it."

The missing budget and war spending have dovetailed for Republicans, who have hammered Democrats on the delay. "This legislation would have passed long ago if it was 'clean' and free of unnecessary add-ons," said California Rep. Jerry Lewis, the top Republican on the Appropriations Committee. "Instead of passing this critical legislation and finding spending cuts to offset costs, Democrats are dallying, looking for ways to spend even more tax dollars."

In the Senate, Republicans like Tom Coburn of Oklahoma are promising to slow the bill down in order to try to offset the costs with cuts elsewhere in the budget. Coburn dismissed as "a farce" the emergency designation. "By definition, emergency spending must be unforeseen," he said. "The last day war funding was unforeseen was Sept. 10, 2001."

Related Links:

Congress Tries to Tighten Defense Acquisition Rules (The Fiscal Times)
Senate Panel OK’s $58 Billion War-Funding Measure (The Boston Globe)
Democrats Prepare to Pass War Funding Bill Without Republican Support (The Hill)
Afghanistan’s Karzai to Ask Obama for Billions More to Fight Taliban (The Telegraph)