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

Will Biden And Kerry Support A War Surtax Again?

Six years ago, when then-President George W. Bush requested an additional $87 billion from Congress for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, several prominent Democrats called his bluff. If Bush wanted to continue funding the wars, he'd have to find a way to pay for it.

Sens. Joseph Biden (D-Del.) and John Kerry (D-Mass.) introduced a joint amendment to the emergency war supplemental in September 2003 that would have funded Bush's $87 billion request by suspending the high-end portion of the tax cuts he had enacted two years earlier.

The pair said it was smart politics and policy -- something to satisfy both deficit and war hawks alike. "We can either pass on to our grandchildren the cost of meeting our security needs, we can cut deeper into the services middle-class taxpayers count on or we can face our obligations squarely and pay for them," Biden said at the time.

"What this is about is called fundamental fairness," said Kerry. "Is it fair in America to suggest that you can add to the deficit -- which it will this year -- to suggest all of the figures of this administration, which have been wrong, can be wiped away on the backs of the average American so that the wealthiest people in the country can keep their tax cut? That is the question. It is a pretty simple fundamental question."

Six years later, the notion of levying a tax on the wealthiest Americans to pay for an escalation of troops in Afghanistan is once again being considered. And the list of supporters includes some prominent House Democrats: Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.), Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey (D-Wisc.) and Rep. John Larson (D-Conn.). On Tuesday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) hinted she might join the chorus when she said there was growing "unrest" in the Democratic Caucus over whether the country could "afford this war."

There is no word yet as to whether the proposal has wider support in Congress. The Obama administration, meanwhile, has refused to comment on what it deems a hypothetical matter -- noting that the president has yet to announce a policy that reportedly includes a deployment of an additional 30,000 or more troops to Afghanistan.

"I'm not going to get into how one funds a decision that's yet to be made," Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said on Monday. "I don't doubt we'll have some time to do that."

Nevertheless, as the debate makes its way into the Senate and the White House, both Biden and Kerry find themselves in more powerful positions to affect the conversation than in 2003. Certainly, as vice president and chair of the Foreign Relations Committee, respectively, their stance on a war surtax could go a long way towards determining its passage as well as providing another barometer of the Biden's influence within the administration.

Both offices declined comment for this article. But observers say that while there are parallels between 2003 and 2009, the politics are different.

"There is some relationship between the [then and now]," said John Isaacs, Executive Director of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. "But I don't think the Democrats then were wanting to stop the war then so much as they were eager to go after the Bush tax cuts. They were aiming to make a point as opposed to pass legislation. Which is what Obey is trying to do. No one expects his approach to win even if it gets a vote."

Of course, both Biden and Kerry came up short in 2003. With the GOP controlling Congress and Bush in the White House, their amendment was defeated 57 to 42. Weeks later, the Senate passed an emergency supplemental that was not deficit-neutral. Biden voted for the measure; Kerry, along with 10 other Democrats, was in opposition. During the 2004 election, the Massachusetts Democrat famously argued that he was for the bill (when it was paid for by repealing elements of the Bush tax cuts) before he was against it. And the rest, as they say, is history.

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