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Democrats Shrug Off Obey Plan

Even as Republicans gleefully flogged Democrats with the “tax-and-spend” label over a proposed special tax to fund the Iraq War, Democratic leaders predicted Wednesday that the episode would minimally affect the party’s vulnerable freshmen.

Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Chris Van Hollen (Md.) said he does not expect the tax proposal to overshadow his candidates’ campaigns in coming months, adding that any questions sparked by the issue should serve as an opportunity for freshman lawmakers to discuss the war and its costs.

“This is not part of the leadership agenda,” Van Hollen said.

House Appropriations Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.) unveiled his proposal Tuesday for a special tax to raise up to $150 billion per year to subsidize the cost of the war, at the same time vowing to withhold a supplemental spending bill until early 2008 or until President Bush agrees to terms including an end to combat operations in Iraq by January 2009.

The House Democratic leadership immediately rejected the tax plan, however, a point that several Democratic freshmen contended will deter significant criticism.

“For me anything dealing with the war is what people want to talk about,” said Rep. Tim Walz (D-Minn.), president of the freshman class. He asserted that the proposal could highlight Democrats’ efforts to contrast the costs of the war with those for domestic programs. “We’re actually looking for how to fund the war,” Walz said.

While Obey said Wednesday he still plans to introduce legislation, which is now being drafted, there is little expectation that the measure will ever reach the House floor, even from Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.), who appeared with Obey and Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) — a Rules Committee member and vocal opponent of the war — at a Tuesday press conference.

“It’s not going to come up on the floor so it’s not going to affect the freshmen,” said Murtha, chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense.

But National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Ken Spain brushed aside the positive face presented by Democrats.

“This tax-and-spend strategy must have been what Democrats meant when they promised a new direction on the campaign trail. I think it is safe to say we are going to make this an issue for them back home,” Spain said. “We’re going to call on every one of them to state their position on this issue.”

Despite the bill’s potential impact, several Democratic leaders, including Majority Whip James Clyburn (S.C.), expressed surprise Tuesday at Obey’s announcement, stating the proposal had not been previously discussed.

While Obey said he did not seek the advice or consent of Democratic leadership, the Wisconsin lawmaker said he did notify them of his intentions.

“This is our own operation,” Obey said of the Appropriations panel, but he added: “I didn’t blindside the leadership. I let them know what we were doing.”

According to Democratic sources familiar with the conversation, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) did not offer support for the proposal but indicated she would not attempt to dissuade the Appropriations chairman from his decision.

Murtha, who is a Pelosi confidant, said he did not discuss Obey’s proposal with her in advance of the Tuesday press conference and was not aware the Wisconsin lawmaker had discussed the matter either.

But Murtha added: “There was no question in my mind what the reaction would be.” Pelosi reiterated her opposition to the proposal Wednesday afternoon.

McGovern said the surtax concept was not a closely held secret, noting that he had discussed a similar measure in the media earlier this year, and also discussed the idea with senior Democratic lawmakers.

“Like any idea, you float the idea and you hope support grows with time,” he said.

“It shouldn’t be a radical idea … to come together and say we have to pay for this,” he added. But “any time you talk about taxes people from both parties get very nervous.”

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