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GOP Leaders Leaving Sacrifice for the Generations to Come

With Democrats almost daily beseeching Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) to run as John F. Kerry’s vice president on a national unity ticket, this might not be the most opportune time for senior Republicans to question whether McCain still belongs in the GOP.

But that’s exactly what House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), ordinarily a more sure-footed political operator, did in an exchange with reporters last week.

“A Republican?” Hastert asked with mock incredulity, when asked about McCain, who has served in Congress as a Republican for more than 20 years and won seven states in the race for the GOP presidential nomination just four years ago.

What heresy from McCain prompted Hastert to question his party loyalty? The senator had challenged the propriety of cutting taxes during a time of war. Here’s what McCain told a Washington conference last week:

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“Throughout our history, war has been a time of sacrifice.... But about the only sacrifice taking place is that by the brave men and women fighting to defend and protect the liberties we hold so dear, and that of their families.

“It is time for others to step up and start sacrificing. Just in the last year we have approved legislation containing billions and billions of dollars in ... pork barrel projects, huge tax breaks for the wealthy, and ... a corporate tax bill estimated to cost $180 billion.... This is a far cry from sacrifice.”

Republicans, especially in the House, have plenty of reason to chafe at McCain. Since his 2000 race, he’s followed an increasingly independent course, often teaming with Senate Democrats to block the true-believer conservative initiatives the House regularly disgorges. And House members, of either party, hate lectures from senators.

But in this case, McCain is articulating what ought to be a bedrock principle for conservatives, not to mention liberals, moderates and everyone else from Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich (D-Ohio) to Vice President Dick Cheney: Every generation, as much as it possibly can, should pay for its own defense.

Today, President Bush and the Republican majority in Congress are engaged in a project unprecedented in American history -- pursuing massive tax cuts while the nation is at war. The result is that we are paying for the war in Iraq, like the war in Afghanistan and the entire post-9/11 buildup in military strength and homeland security, almost entirely by increasing the national debt.

Bush is presiding over annual federal deficits so large that the Congressional Budget Office projects the publicly held federal debt will soar by 50% through 2010. In effect, that means passing on the bill for our defense to our children.

No earlier generation of Americans has done anything like it. McCain is right; it’s a mark of shame.

It’s true that previous generations have increased the national debt to help pay for wars. But only after first contributing more themselves, often significantly more, through higher taxes.

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Abraham Lincoln, the first Republican president, signed into law the income and inheritance tax to help fund the Civil War. Republican President William McKinley imposed excise taxes and reinstated the inheritance tax during the Spanish American War.

In World War I, under Democrat Woodrow Wilson, Washington increased the top rate on the income tax from 7% to 77%. In World War II, under Franklin D. Roosevelt, Washington increased the number of Americans subject to the income tax tenfold and raised the top rate to 91%. Washington raised income taxes even to fund more limited conflicts in Korea and Vietnam.

None of these burdens were easy for Americans. During the first three years of World War II, the share of the economy consumed by federal taxes nearly tripled. The share jumped by almost a third during the first two years of the Korean War and by about one-sixth at the height of the Vietnam War.

But today, after Bush’s huge tax cuts in 2001 and 2003, and the smaller reductions approved in 2002, federal revenue is moving in the opposite direction, even as the bills mount for defending the nation.

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When Bush took office, federal revenue equaled about 20% of the economy. This year, the administration anticipates that Washington will collect revenue equal to 15.7% of the economy -- the lowest level since 1951. Both administration and congressional forecasters expect that number to rise in the years ahead. But both project that for the indefinite future, the federal government will collect less revenue, as a share of the economy, than it did when Bush was inaugurated.

Wedded to the tax cuts, Bush and the Republican congressional majority have developed a single strategy for funding all of their priorities: Put it on the next generation’s tab. The war Bush launched in Iraq has already cost more than $125 billion. He has just requested another $25 billion to fund that war -- the first installment on a bill likely to reach between $60 and $80 billion this year.

Beyond the war itself, he is pursuing a defense buildup that will increase Pentagon spending by $1 trillion after inflation over the next decade. Spending on homeland security is soaring, too.

And Bush has not proposed to raise a penny in revenue to pay for any of this.

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Last fall, when Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) proposed to offset part of Iraq’s cost by rolling back the income tax cuts benefiting the most affluent 1% of families, Bush and Senate Republicans joined to kill the measure. Just one Republican voted for the principle that Americans at home should pay the bill for those fighting abroad: John McCain.

Biden will be back this summer with another amendment to roll back tax breaks for the top earners when the Senate votes on the latest $25 billion for Iraq. That amendment will force Congress and the country to confront the same question that Hastert denounced McCain for even asking: If Iraq is important enough to bleed for, isn’t it important enough to pay for?

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Ronald Brownstein’s column appears every Monday. See current and past Brownstein columns on The Times’ website at: latimes.com/brownstein.

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