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Obey Fires Up Debate on Iraq

House Appropriations Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.) said Tuesday that he will hold $190 billion in funding for the Iraq War hostage until President Bush accedes to his demands for an exit strategy, and simultaneously proposed a new $150 billion war surtax.

Within hours the tax plan was shot down by Democratic leaders, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), but not before Republican aides busied themselves churning out press releases accusing Democrats of trying to pass a tax hike on the backs of troops.

Meanwhile, Obey’s proposal to delay the war supplemental at least until next year is under serious consideration by leaders in both chambers, as Democrats have grown increasingly frustrated at their inability to affect the president’s conduct of the war.

“The president isn’t going to get a supplemental this year,” Obey said. “The president sooner or later is going to need that supplemental,” Obey said, adding that Bush will have to change course before Obey will let it move out of his committee. In addition to a January 2009 goal for ending combat operations, Obey put two other conditions on moving a war bill — a plan to make sure that troops get adequate time off between deployments and demonstration that the Bush administration will engage in a broad diplomatic offensive involving other countries in the Middle East.

But Obey later said he was flexible on the particulars.

“We want any kind of movement at this point from existing policy,” Obey said. “The White House needs to recognize that we’ve had it being maneuvered and jerked around on this issue.”

The proposed war surtax on income, ranging from 2 percent to 15 percent of every American’s tax bill, would raise about $150 billion a year to pay for the war.

“If you don’t like the cost then shut down the war,” Obey said.

Obey’s plan, unveiled alongside Reps. John Murtha (D-Pa.) and Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), would not immediately cut off funds for the war. Murtha, the chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense, said enough funding for the war would be available in the regular Defense spending bill to keep the war going perhaps until March 2008.

Obey ripped Bush’s plan for a slow drawdown of the troop “surge” by the middle of next year as “simply a plan to punt the problem to his successor, ruining two administrations instead of one.”

The tax proposal appears aimed at raising awareness of the massive cost of the war and how it is pouring red ink on future generations.

“We need to stop pretending that this war doesn’t cost anything,” Obey said.

But Pelosi and House Ways and Means Chairman Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.) quickly made it clear that the idea was dead on arrival.

“Those who oppose a tax and the draft also should oppose the president’s war,” Pelosi said. “Just as I have opposed the war from the outset, I am opposed to a draft and I am opposed to a war surtax.”

Rangel told reporters that he agrees with Pelosi and said a war tax would not work politically.

“I think I’m going to leave the tax hike alone,” Rangel said. He added that he hoped Republicans and Democrats could one day agree that tax increases are needed for education, health care and infrastructure, but said that point has not arrived. “The truth of the matter is politically it’s the third rail, nobody on either side will talk about it.”

But Republican leaders, who viewed the proposal as a political gift at a time when their poll ratings are in the dumps, quickly churned out statements of condemnation.

“All year long, Democrats have used American troops as a vehicle for their agenda of bigger government, increased spending, and higher taxes,” House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) said. “They held up the troop funding bill for 108 days earlier this year and tried to attach billions in pork and unrelated spending. They’re currently stalling a critical veterans’ and military quality funding bill to use as a vehicle for even more pork. And now they’re proposing a tax increase on every working family in America, regardless of income.”

The administration also ripped the idea.

“It shouldn’t surprise anyone that Democrats are looking to raise taxes,” said Sean Kevelighan, spokesman for the White House Office of Management and Budget. “In fact, with [the State Children’s Health Insurance Program], this will be their second tax increase proposal this week. Unfortunately in this case, it’s a proposal that’s trying to play politics with our troops.”

The proposal surprised many Democrats, including House Majority Whip James Clyburn (S.C.), who said the first he heard of it was when he read news reports Tuesday morning.

“It’s never been discussed by anybody,” Clyburn said.

One Republican apostate opposed to the war, Rep. Walter Jones Jr. (N.C.), praised Obey’s strategy of holding up the supplemental. “I think that truthfully is a smart strategy,” Jones said. “Chairman Obey is listening to the American people. Read the latest poll. … That’s one way to get the attention of the administration.”

At his pen-and-pad presser on Tuesday morning, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said he doesn’t want the supplemental to be a “blank check” and noted a Washington Post poll showing that a majority want the amount spent on the war reduced. “We’ll see what happens with that,” he said.

But Hoyer made clear that Obey’s plans were not yet those of the party.

“We’re going to discuss Mr. Obey’s proposal. … There’s been no decision on that.”

Rank-and-file Democrats had varied views on the idea of a war tax.

“We need to find a way to pay for it. The president should call on the American people to make some sacrifices,” Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), who claimed he would support the tax, stated. “We all should be willing to give up something — to sacrifice — and we’re not doing that.”

“The concept of what he’s discussing has merit. We should pay as we go,” said Rep. Dennis Cardoza (D-Calif.), a member of the fiscally conservative Blue Dog Coalition.

Cardoza said he has not endorsed the surtax plan, but said he believes the proposal is an important tool to publicize the cost of the war to American citizens.

“We’re absolutely determined we’re not going to fund this war through additional debt,” Rep. Earl Pomeroy (D-N.D.), another Blue Dog member, said.

Pomeroy noted that the proposed tax is not a Democratic policy statement, but he added: “David Obey is going to have plenty of ideas and he’s going to speak them freely and when he does, we will listen.”

But Obey’s plan to delay funding for the war was not enough to win over the most liberal members.

“We should only pay to bring our troops home,” Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.), co-chairwoman of the Progressive Caucus, said.

The Obey proposal overshadowed the bipartisan passage of a proposal by Reps. Neil Abercrombie (D-Hawaii) and John Tanner (D-Tenn.) to force the administration to report back to Congress on contingency plans for redeployment within 60 days. The idea had been earlier shelved by Democrats as too weak, but brought to the floor as Democrats continue to struggle for ways to get bipartisan backing for bills to wind down the war.

Jennifer Yachnin contributed to this report.

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