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Talk of war surtax for Afghanistan expenses heats up

As President Obama is preparing to announce a troop increase and new strategy for the war in Afghanistan, several powerful House committee chairmen have proposed a surtax on Americans to pay the future military costs.

Talk of the levy escalated Tuesday after Obama said he soon would deliver a plan to “finish the job” in Afghanistan. “I feel very confident that when the American people hear a clear rationale for what we’re doing there and how we intend to achieve our goals,” Obama said, “that they will be supportive.”

The suggestion that a surtax be used to help fund the increasingly unpopular war, though unlikely to pass, illustrated the fiscal anxieties that the president will face if he asks Congress to write another big-ticket item into the budget.

“There is serious unrest in our caucus” over whether the U.S. can afford the war, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) said in a conference call with economists and bloggers. “We have to look at that war with a green eyeshade on.”

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With polls showing intensified voter concern about the federal deficit, Democratic lawmakers are feeling more pressure to match new spending with revenue. That is why they are working to live up to Obama’s promise to find tax increases and spending cuts to offset the cost of the sweeping healthcare overhaul.

“For the last year, as we’ve struggled to pass healthcare reform, we’ve been told that we have to pay for the bill -- and the cost over the next decade will be about $1 trillion,” said House Appropriations Committee Chairman David R. Obey (D-Wis.). “Now the president is being asked to consider an enlarged counterinsurgency effort in Afghanistan. . . . But unlike the healthcare bill, that would not be paid for. We believe that’s wrong.”

Obey and several other senior Democrats have proposed a graduated surtax, beginning in 2011, to pay for the war. Their bill would impose a 1% surtax on people earning less than $150,000. The tax hike would be higher for people earning between $150,000 and $250,000 a year, and double that for people with higher incomes. The bill does not give exact figures for what upper surtax rates would be, but says that they would be high enough to cover the previous year’s war costs.

It would exempt veterans of combat since Sept. 11, 2001, their families, and the relatives of those killed in action. The president could delay implementation of the tax for a year if he concluded that the economy was too weak.

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Aides said that Obama was likely to announce his new war strategy during a televised address to the nation, possibly Tuesday. Obama’s ground commander has said that at least 40,000 additional military personnel are needed to succeed. About 68,000 U.S. troops are already in Afghanistan.

Although it is unclear how much such a deployment would cost, White House budget analysts have estimated that it may be as much as $1 million a year for each additional soldier -- on top of the $227 billion appropriated for the war from 2001 through 2009.

Many Democrats voted early this year for Obama’s first war-funding request with great reluctance, and they have only grown more skeptical of fighting to bolster an Afghan government that is widely seen as corrupt.

“I’m deeply concerned about sending additional troops there,” said Rep. George Miller (D-Martinez), a close Pelosi ally who recently visited the region. “I don’t see an honest government; I don’t see a civil society or civil works projects; I don’t see help from neighbors in the region. The level of corruption is incredible.”

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In addition to Obey, Rep. John B. Larson of Connecticut, chairman of the Democratic Caucus, and the defense appropriations subcommittee chairman, Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.), have come out in support of the surtax.

In a television interview this week, Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, also endorsed the idea of increasing taxes on people earning more than $200,000 to pay for sending additional troops.

“There ain’t going to be no money for nothing if we pour it all into Afghanistan,” Obey told ABC News this week. “If they ask for an increased troop commitment in Afghanistan, I am going to ask them to pay for it.”

The idea is not likely to be enacted any time soon. Many Democrats already are nervous about other tax increases they are proposing to finance the healthcare overhaul.

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And some Republicans were quick to criticize the idea of a war surtax.

“Americans are already being taxed to death. . . . It’s time for them to understand that we don’t need yet another job-killing tax. We need to better prioritize the resources we have,” said Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Redlands).

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said that the president would fully count the cost -- and find a way to pay for it -- before embarking on a new strategy.

But another senior administration official said that the president would choose among strategies based on their security merits, not their price tags.

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In a public appearance Tuesday, Obama said that part of his strategy would be to make sure Al Qaeda “cannot operate effectively” in Afghanistan.

“We are going to dismantle and degrade their capabilities and ultimately dismantle and destroy their networks. And Afghanistan’s stability is important to that process,” he said.

The president offered no clues on how many troops he would send, but highlighted the need to train more Afghan security forces and increase civilian assistance efforts.

As Obama has considered a new course -- and the cost of the escalating war -- his budget director, Peter R. Orszag, has joined the circle of advisors in the president’s war council.

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Geoff Morrell, a spokesman for Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, said: “Obviously, costs have been a part of the conversation that has been taking place between the president and his advisors, although the secretary made clear to me it has not been a principal element to this conversation.”

janet.hook@latimes.com

cparsons@latimes.com

Julian E. Barnes and Peter Nicholas in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.

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