POLITICS
03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

GOP: Use Unspent Stimulus For War

As some Democrats consider raising taxes to pay for President Obama's escalation of the now-eight-year-old war in Afghanistan, the opposition party has a suggestion.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) told his colleagues during a closed-door GOP lunch Tuesday that the best way to fund the war would be to use unspent stimulus funds, according to Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), the third-ranking Republican.

McConnell, at a press briefing with reporters following the meeting, repeated the idea -- only after making sure to share the blame with Democrats for not paying for previous wars.

"Well, I think ideally it would be better to pay for the war than not. As you know, in previous years both sides agreed not to," said McConnell (though the GOP controlled Congress through 2006 and the White House through 2008, leaving Democrats little opportunity to fund a war).

"We know the stimulus failed. It was sold to the Congress and to the American people with the suggestion that it would hold unemployment below 8 percent. We know unemployment is over 10 percent," said McConnell. "If we're looking for a way to fund several years of the war I would suggest unexpended stimulus funds would be a good place to start."

McConnell is heading to the White House Tuesday afternoon for a meeting with Obama in advance of the president's speech announcing the escalation of 34,000 troops, which comes on top of a recent 20,000-strong escalation, bringing the total number of troops north of 100,000.

On Monday, the Congressional Budget Office released a study finding that only about a quarter of the stimulus funds have been spent so far.

Regardless of how the war is paid for, the Senate will need to pass a supplemental war spending measure at some point next year, said Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), chairman of the Armed Services Committee, on Tuesday.

The supplemental could come at a tough time for Democrats seeking reelection in 2010, as the Democratic base clamors for an end to the war amid widespread concern that the overseas effort is sucking up money needed for the economic recovery at home.

In addition, the Afghan government propped up by the U.S. is mired in corruption and is widely perceived to have stolen the recent election. "It's controversial anytime you send troops to a foreign country, particularly one where there's been such poor governance in the country," said Levin. "You've got such evidence of corruption, which is continuing."

Democrats in Congress generally reacted coolly to Obama's troop escalation, but said that they would wait to hear his speech before drawing conclusions.

Various proposals to fund the war, from war bonds to a surtax on the wealthy, have been floated. GOP senators roundly rejected the surtax suggestion, as did one bellwether of elite opinion in the capital: the Washington Post editorial board. In a characteristically flawed editorial, the Post dismissed a surtax "since the House already has voted to tax high incomes to pay for health care, and raising the income taxes of middle-class families makes little sense when the nation is struggling to recover from a recession."

The Post knows -- or ought to know -- that the House tax on the wealthy is not in the Senate health care bill and that it is extremely unlikely to be included in the final measure. And the surtax would not, in fact, hit "middle-class families," but rather the wealthy.

Opposition to such a tax, however, means that only a fee on the wealthiest Americans has a chance of getting through, said Levin.

"I don't think any tax increase in the middle of a recession -- except a tax on the upper income bracket which has done so very, very well, even in the middle of the recession -- is going to happen," he said.

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