McConnell says stimulus surplus should fund surge

WASHINGTON — As a wary, divided Congress considers President Obama's new Afghanistan policy, lawmakers Tuesday raised serious questions about the strategy, timetables and plans to pay for the buildup with some such as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell suggesting that the administration use an unspent stimulus surplus to fund the war efforts.

"We know the stimulus failed," McConnell said during a Tuesday afternoon press conference. "It was sold to the Congress and to the American people with the suggestion that it would hold unemployment below eight percent. We know unemployment is over 10 percent. We're looking for a way to fund several years of the war. I would suggest unexpended stimulus funds would be a good place to start."

Tensions are running high as lawmakers consider the president's plan to send more than 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan. Troops currently slated to head to Iraq include soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell, Ky., an installation that in recent years has had one of the highest military suicide rates since the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan began.

With the additional troops, the United States will have nearly 100,000 troops. In addition, there are 42,000 NATO troops. The forces are tackling a resurgent Taliban that is taking over large swathes of the country. Violence against Afghans and coalition forces are at their highest levels of this eight-year war.

"Decisions like the one announced tonight by President Obama are always difficult. I have been to both Iraq and Afghanistan, and I have seen the situation on the ground. For years, I have been concerned that the previous administration had the wrong priorities — instead of directing resources to fight the Taliban and Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, we took our eye off the ball," Rep. Ben Chandler, D-Versailles said following the speech. "Now, reluctantly, we will again have to call on our brave troops to finish a job in Afghanistan that should have been finished years ago."

While most members of Kentucky's congressional delegation are prepared to conditionally support the Obama administration's plan to send more troops to Afghanistan, the lawmakers stress efforts in that country must include consistent pressure to root out corruption in Afghan President Hamid Karzai's government — including cracking down on his brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, a suspected opium kingpin who operates in the country's southern Taliban stronghold.

However, the mission in Afghanistan is less about nation building and more about keeping American citizens safe, McConnell said.

"It's one of the problems we have to deal with," McConnell said of corruption at the highest levels of the Karzai government. "We're not there just to build a Jeffersonian democracy in Kabul. We're there to protect the U.S. from another 9-11."

Meanwhile, Obama has a huge political struggle ahead as a wary, divided Congress considers his new Afghanistan policy, as lawmakers Tuesday raised serious questions about the strategy, the timetables and his plans to pay for the buildup. Obama has to sell House and Senate members not only on the strategy but also on a method of payment.

His biggest sales job will involve Democrats, who control 60 of the Senate's 100 seats and 258 of the House's 435 seats.

However, McConnell, who attended a White House briefing on Afghanistan strategy Tuesday afternoon, said his caucus will largely support the president's renewed push.

"We believe the surge in Afghanistan has a good chance of working just like the surge in Iraq did," McConnell said.Still, many Republican lawmakers balk at the idea of setting timetables for de-escalation.

"I have serious concerns about President Obama's commitment to actually winning the war given his troubling decision to set a timetable for troop withdrawal," said Sen. Jim Bunning. "By announcing an arbitrary deadline for our forces to come home — possibly before the job is done — the President is telling our enemies how long they will have to hold out and wait until we leave. I fear he could be setting all our efforts up for defeat and further putting our fighting men and women in danger. I am deeply troubled by this."

Republicans also want to slash spending; Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., proposes cutting sharp increases in 2010 discretionary spending, or government programs not subject to automatic increases. He says his plan would free $60 billion, well above the estimated $40 billion cost of Obama's plan.

But a proposal to pay for the Afghan surge with surtax is gaining popularity in the House of Representatives, particularly among House Democratic leaders.

Nancy Youssef, William Douglas and David Lightman of McClatchy Newspapers contributed to this report.