President Obama's plan to up the ante in the Afghanistan war faces a major obstacle in Congress: paying the tab.
The president insists that lawmakers should not put a price tag on national security, but every item on Mr. Obama's ambitious agenda - from health care reform to another proposed job-creation bill - is threatened by the grim budget reality of a stagnant economy, colossal deficits and record levels of public debt.
Top Democrats say they will fund the war with a supplemental spending bill outside the regular appropriations process, likely sparking a budget battle within the president's own party over wars that already cost taxpayers nearly $11 billion a month.
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House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, Maryland Democrat, said Tuesday that every member of the Democratic caucus will be asking whether the president's war plan is "worth the investment."
"There is significant concern about whether or not we can be successful in Afghanistan," Mr. Hoyer told reporters, "that the investment in doing so will be worth the investment."
Mr. Obama's plan to send about 30,000 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan, estimated to cost an extra $30 billion next year, adds to the red ink spread by the $787 billion stimulus package, the $700 billion Wall Street bailout (implemented under President George W. Bush), a proposed nearly $1 trillion health care overhaul, expanded jobless benefits, and a growing groundswell for another economic stimulus package that Democrats have dubbed a "jobs bill."
Mr. Obama vowed Tuesday night to address cost concerns with Congress.
"All told, by the time I took office, the cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan approached $1 trillion. Going forward, I am committed to addressing these costs openly and honestly," Mr. Obama said when unveiling his war plan in a prime-time, televised address.
"Our new approach in Afghanistan is likely to cost us roughly $30 billion for the military this year, and I will work closely with Congress to address these costs as we work to bring down our deficit."
The administrations spending spree coincides with a record $1.4 trillion federal deficit in fiscal 2009, more than the deficits from the previous four years combined. That helped push U.S. debt, mostly to foreign powers such as China, to almost $12 trillion.
Deficit spending and the ensuing debt can help increase economic growth during a recession. The idea of another stimulus package received a boost Monday when the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office issued a report that found the $787 billion package enacted in February had lifted U.S. gross domestic product by 1 percent to 3 percent and had raised employment by 600,000 to 1.6 million jobs through the end of September.
However, the long-term consequences for the economy of the spending sprees could be dire. Risks include rising interest rates and a falling value for the U.S. dollar.
Lawmakers will be asked to raise the debt ceiling another $1 trillion before Congress adjourns this year. The move is required to prevent the United States from defaulting on its debt payments, but a bipartisan group of more than a dozen senators is threatening to oppose raising the ceiling unless Congress passes legislation to cut the deficit.
Democrats also are painfully aware of the criticism they heaped upon the Bush administration for funding the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts with supplemental spending bills that they said obscured the costs of the wars and drove up deficits and debt.
The administration's request also conflicts with statements by the Obama White House earlier this year that an "emergency" supplemental spending bill to fund operations in Iraq and Afghanistan for the balance of the 2009 fiscal year would be the last time the process would be employed.
"This will be the last supplemental for Iraq and Afghanistan," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said in April. "The process by which this has been funded in the past ... will change, and this will be the last time."
The supplemental war-spending bill for Mr. Obama's new Afghanistan offensive is expected to go before lawmakers early next year and spark heated debate over the war strategy and its cost.
Spending bills traditionally bring war debates to the fore in Congress. In recent years, Democrats used them to challenge Mr. Bush's war policy for Iraq with failed attempts to cut off funds or impose timetables to wind down the U.S. engagement.
Since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Congress has approved roughly $944 billion for military operations - virtually all of that for Iraq and Afghanistan - with Iraq getting about 72 percent of the money. At the peak of the troop surge in Iraq in 2008, the wars cost $180 billion.
The cost has since declined, with Mr. Obama requesting about $130 billion for 2010 to fight both wars. Congress is still debating the final 2010 defense spending bill, which is the first time the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were included in the regular appropriations bills.
"Unfortunately over the last eight years, we've been funding these military operations by deficit spending and we can't keep doing that, not only in military operations but also in every other program," said Sen. Jack Reed, Rhode Island Democrat. "We've got to be concerned."
Neither Mr. Reed nor other Democrats suggested an alternative to more borrowing or offered to sacrifice items on Mr. Obama's domestic agenda to help pay for the war.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, one of the Democrats threatening to oppose raising the debt ceiling, said she would not consider forgoing a health care overhaul in favor of war spending.
"I don't believe that is a choice," she said, adding that the U.S. cannot afford to lose in Afghanistan.
Even a Democratic plan for a new surtax focused primarily on wealthy Americans to pay for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan - backed by House Appropriations Committee Chairman David R. Obey, Wisconsin Democrat - must be balanced against the potential impact on the fragile economy.
"Everything is complicated by the economic crisis," Mr. Hoyer said, adding that he usually opposes deficit spending but is withholding support of a war tax.
Republicans say that the war tax is dead on arrival and that defense is the one of the few emergencies that justify going further into debt.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, Michigan Democrat, earlier championed the war tax idea but has since backed away. "I just don't see any tax increase working in the middle of a recession," he said.
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