WASHINGTON — Would conservatives and Republicans support the war in Iraq if they had to pay for it?

This is the immensely useful question that Rep. David Obey, the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, put on the table this week by calling for a temporary war tax to cover President Bush’s request for $145 billion in supplemental spending for Iraq.

The proposal is a magnificent way to test the seriousness of those who claim that the Iraq war is an essential part of the “global war on terror.” If the war’s backers believe in it so much, it should be easy for them to ask taxpayers to put up the money for such an important endeavor.

Obey makes the case pointedly. “Some people are being asked to pay with their lives or their faces or their hands or their arms or their legs,” he said in an interview this week. “If you’re going to ask for that, it doesn’t seem too much to ask an average taxpayer to pay thirty bucks for the cost of the war so we don’t have to shove it off on our kids.”

Or as Obey said in a statement, “I’m tired of seeing that only military families are asked to sacrifice in this war.”

Unfortunately, the Democratic leadership ran away from this idea as fast as you could say the words “Republican majority.” That, of course, is what Democrats are afraid of. “Just as I have opposed the war from the outset,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, “I am opposed to a war surtax.”

Obey doesn’t hold this against his leadership. “They don’t want to be demagogued by the White House when they have other fish to fry,” he said.

But it’s a shame that Democrats remain so defensive on the tax issue that they aren’t willing to bring this proposal to the floor. What if the price for passing President Bush’s supplemental appropriation were a tax to cover its costs? What if opponents of the war voted no because they are against Bush’s policy, and Republicans voted no because they think low taxes are more important than national security, as they define it?

That’s an aggressive way to frame anti-tax “no” votes, but it’s also accurate. If a war appropriations bill with a tax included went down to overwhelming defeat, wouldn’t that tell us something about the depth of commitment to this war?

The Obey surtax, co-sponsored by Reps. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., and John Murtha, D-Pa., envisions a sliding scale of roughly 2 percent on the taxes paid by lower-income Americans and up to 15 percent on upper-income Americans. Since wars are waged, in principle, on behalf of the entire country, this is the rare Democratic proposal that does not put the entire burden of taxation on the rich.

The plan does not ask for a tax to cover the $45 billion in Bush’s supplemental request to pay for the war in Afghanistan. “There are legitimate expenditures on which we don’t mind sharing the costs with future generations,” Obey says, noting that there is a broad consensus that the fight in Afghanistan is in the long-term interest of the country. It might be less gimmicky to pay for both wars now, but some revenue is better than nothing.

Ah, you say, but this is just symbolic politics. I don’t think so, but let’s assume it is. This idea is far more serious than the utterly empty fight Bush is about to pick with Congress over a $21 billion to $23 billion difference in spending in a federal budget that totals $2.7 trillion.

Here is a president who signed one bloated spending bill after another — as long as they were passed by a Republican Congress — posing as a fiscal conservative now that Democrats hold the majority. He’s so tough and determined that he’s also drawn the line on … children’s health care.

Bush has often let it be known that he hates “small ball” politics. But there is nothing smaller or more trivial than a budget fight over a difference that any responsible president could easily resolve in negotiations with Congress. War spending aside, Obey says it would take no more than a week to reach a reasonable compromise on the overall budget if the White House would just engage.

And if the president believes in this war so much and doesn’t want to raise taxes, let him propose the deep spending cuts it would take to cover the costs. Then Bush would show how much of a priority he believes this war is — and he wouldn’t be playing small ball.

E.J. Dionne’s e-mail address is postchat(at)aol.com.

© 2007, Washington Post Writers Group

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