POLITICS
05/21/2010 02:26 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

GOP Wants War Funds Paid For But Not With Tax Hikes

A Senate Republican is working to persuade his colleagues to vote against President Obama's war supplemental spending bill if it isn't paid for, threatening to rebuild a left-right coalition that nearly took down the last war funding measure Democrats pushed through Congress.

Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) has been meeting with GOP senators to press his case that the war-funding bill must be paid for with cuts in spending.

Republicans are persuaded that, in principle, the war should be paid for. But finding the money to do it is another question, pitting two traditional GOP positions - pro-military spending and anti-tax - against each other.

"We're trying to put together the right kind of packages to get people comfortable to vote and get rid of lower priority stuff," said Coburn, who is working to identify waste in government rather than raise tax revenue.

"The question is, how many people don't think we should pay for it? The American people think we should, by about a 2-1 margin," he told HuffPost.

Coburn has met with Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), whose position is reflective of the GOP dilemma. "It makes pretty good sense," Chambliss said of Coburn's proposal. "I've talked to Tom about it. We've got to start paying for these things some time. I told him I wanted to look at what his payfors were."

Payfor is congressional lingo for a spending offset--as in, cutting the Medicare budget by $50 billion would pay for some of the supplemental. The other way to offset the spending is to hike taxes, but many Republicans have signed a pledge never to support a new tax increase.

Coburn spokesman John Hart said that "the proposal for a so-called 'war tax' is a bland, unimaginative solution and a tacit endorsement of both the obscene amount of waste at the Pentagon and the earmark-industrial-complex. Congress could easily pay for these bills by reducing wasteful spending, beginning with the defense budget. Raising taxes is based on an assumption no one believes -- that the Department of Defense, and the rest of government, is operating at a peak efficiency, leaving tax increases as the only way to generate revenue."

The indecision on the vote from Coburn's colleagues is a stark contrast from the wars' early years, when President Bush's war supplementals flew through GOP-controlled Congresses and any opposition was portrayed as unpatriotic. Cries of "Support The Troops!" met any lawmaker who questioned the direction or the purpose of either the Iraq or Afghanistan war.

Coburn himself, in fact, has backed unfunded war bills in the past, but only twice. His three no votes on funding bills ties him with Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). (Coburns office provided this analysis.) "Congress' failure to pay for war spending in the past doesn't justify this practice in the present or the future," said Hart.

Antiwar progressives hope that Coburn can rally his colleagues to stay true to their fiscal philosophy, hoping to cobble together enough votes to block the supplemental.

"President Obama campaigned not only on curbing military spending, but accounting for it transparently within the budget. Instead he has requested increased defense spending each year, in addition to supplemental war funding that is not paid for," said Jane Hamsher of FireDogLake.com, who worked to pull together a coalition of opposition to the last supplemental spending bill. "I don't imagine anyone will seriously entertain recommendations by his Deficit Commission to reduce Social Security or Medicare benefits in the name of 'fiscal responsibility' until irresponsible defense spending practices are addressed. I'm glad to see Senator Coburn acknowledge the need to do that, and I hope members of both parties will join him."

In 2009, Republicans voted en masse against a supplemental because it also included money for the International Monetary Fund, and antiwar Democrats pulled away, as well, almost tanking the bill. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) later told progressive media that it was "the hardest vote I've had this year."

"That was the worst. Energy was a heavy lift. But you're talking substance. You're discussing issues with people. But we had never thought we'd have to do another supplemental. Not that we would have to vote for. But then the president brought home the IMF and Republicans all took a hike. Then we were stuck with it. Oh brother!" she said, throwing her hands in the air. "That was the hardest. Budget, stimulus, those were all heavy lifts. None of it is easy. But you get ready for things like energy, health, education, and budget. But the supplemental? That's where we have to do a heavy lift?"

In order to win support in the House, Pelosi pledged that this would really, really be the last time they had to vote for "emergency" war funding.

"We all said we were never, ever voting for this again. But in any event, I think the administration knows that that was it," she said last summer.

But that was not it. The administration is now coming back for more war funds and is attaching disaster relief for Haiti and the states hit by the still-gushing oil in the Gulf.

Sen. David Vitter (R-La.), who can often be counted on to buck his party, said he hasn't decided whether to back unfunded war money. "I haven't decided. I'm certainly very focused on trying to pay for things and not increasing the debt, but I haven't decided that specifically," he said.

On the House side, Republicans are negotiating the details of a final package and, said one GOP leadership aide, are okay with including disaster relief for Haiti and the Gulf states and have yet to draw a line in the sand on having the spending paid for.

Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) said he's still deliberating. "It has to be paid for," he said.

Would he vote against it if it's not?

"Most likely," he said. "I want to look at it on balance, but I want to see it paid for."

For a few Republicans, they're done with the war entirely. "I think we've been in Afghanistan far too long already," said Rep. John Duncan Jr., pledging to vote against funding.

Some Republicans have remained consistent in their support of war spending even if it's not paid for.

"I never would vote against troops, when we put people in harms way -- our sons and daughters. Even if we borrow money to support the troops," Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) told HuffPost. "We've borrowed money in every war, First World War... Revolutionary War, the Civil War, the War of 1812, we borrowed money."

If he can't persuade more of his colleagues, said Coburn, his effort is doomed - but he'll have made a statement. "I can't filibuster by myself," said Coburn. "I just made a plea to my colleagues and to several Democrats and said, 'We're now past the point of it being partisan. Look at Greece. You've got three years and that's going to happen to us. So if you want to be responsible for that, that's fine. I'm not going to be responsible for that.'"

UPDATE: Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.) and House progressives are pushing the "War Is Making You Poor Act," which would "cut war funding and use the money to eliminate federal income taxes on every American's first $35,000 of income, as well as cut the deficit."

WATCH Grayson lay out the bill on the floor: