Senator Proposes Delaying Health Care Reform to Pay for Afghanistan War

The Afghanistan war could be as much about dollars as sense for several U.S. lawmakers, including one top Republican who says national security is worth delaying health care reforms so Congress can pay for military operations.

"The war is terribly important," Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said Sunday. "Jobs and our economy are terribly important. So this may be an audacious suggestion, but I would suggest we put aside the health care debate until next year, the same way we put cap and trade and climate change, and talk now about the essentials: the war and money."

But Democratic Sen. Jack Reed said health care legislation is at a critical stage and passing it is too important to the economy and American businesses.

"I think we're in the midst of probably the most significant debate and conclusion with legislation that we've ever had," Reed, of Rhode Island, said while appearing with Lugar on CNN. "We have to go ahead and conclude this debate."

Still, others are questioning whether the effort to tamp down Taliban and Al Qaeda terrorists in Afghanistan is worth the price in treasure much less blood.

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Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., the head of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has suggested taxing income earners over $250,000 to pay for the cost of additional troops, an idea also supported by House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey, D-Wis.

"I think you could tax the upper brackets, $250,000, for instance, or more, but I don't think middle income America is in a position now where they can pay additional taxes because the economic stress is so great here," Levin said on CBS' "Face the Nation."

President Obama on Tuesday is expected to outline his plan to send around 30,000-35,000 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan over the next 12-18 months. The prime time speech comes as the Senate begins debate this week on expanding coverage of health insurance to 30 million Americans for six years at a cost of $848 billion.

The cost of the war surge is being estimated at $1 million per soldier for one year on the ground -- or $30 billion to $35 billion additional dollars next year based on the president's expected announcement.

Opponents of the war say America can't afford that cost.

"What's happening now is not only a $12 trillion national debt, we're in the midst of the worst economic recession since the Great Depression of the 1930s. The middle class is collapsing. The gap between the rich and the poor is growing wider," said Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. "So I've got a real problem about expanding this war where the rest of the world is sitting around and saying, 'Isn't it a nice thing that the taxpayers of the United States and the U.S. military are doing the work that the rest of the world should be doing?'"

Appearing on ABC's "This Week," Sanders said the real cost of the war is much higher -- closer to $100 billion a year on top of what is being spent in Iraq, which Sanders estimated has been $2 trillion to $3 trillion since the U.S. entry into Iraq in 2003.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said he would "welcome a debate about how to control government spending and pay for the war," but that the war in Afghanistan will have national security implications for the United States for decades.

Graham said he'd like to endeavor to find ways to cut spending and find dollars to pay for the war.

"I think it would be a good exercise for the Congress to look at ways to trim up the spending, which has been out of control since the administration came into power. ... Our national security future depends on getting it right in Afghanistan, and there is no better use of taxpayer dollars than to defend America, in my view," he said.

Sanders said that kind of attitude means cutting back on education, infrastructure spending and sustainable energy efforts while continuing to import $350 billion a year in foreign oil.

But Sanders and Levin both acknowledged that leaving Afghanistan is not an option.

"No one is talking about bringing the troops home tomorrow," he said. "But if you're going to have a presence there, you just can't pass the bill on, as we did in Iraq, to our kids and our grandchildren."

The mission is "critically important," Levin said, adding that he hoped Obama would address "in a very forthright way" how the war cost will be paid.

Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., said he did not think a war tax would fly in Congress, telling "Fox News Sunday" that "you need to provide for the nation's security regardless of your financial situation."

But he said Congress must "start coming to grips" with the cost of war and the United States' massive debt.

"I don't think we should vote to raise the debt ceiling until we have a strategy in place to get our deficits down," he said. "So we've got to take the fiscal situation seriously, but, number one, national security comes first. Number two, we've got to look at cutting spending in other parts of the budget before we even talk about raising taxes. And number three, if ultimately you're going to have to start talking about raising taxes, you shouldn't do it until the economy is robust and really on its -- on some pretty good footing."

Reed said central to the debate on health care has been how to pay for it, and that should be the approach for operations overseas.

"I think the important point is that we have to commit not to indefinitely, through deficits, fund these operations, but do it in a reasonable, pragmatic way," he said without offering a suggestion on how.

Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., who appeared with Bayh, said Senate Republicans want to support the president in a plan to send more troops and "prevail over the Taliban and Al Qaeda," even if that means passing a war supplemental.

"We've got to do what we need until that mission is accomplished," he said.