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Obama’s Other Front: The Hill

Meet the six most influential congressmen in the Afghanistan debate.

No matter what you think of it, the kind of troop increase that President Obama announced tonight is going to be expensive. With an estimated $1 billion dollar price tag for each additional thousand troops deployed, the new strategy will drive costs well above the $130 billion originally budgeted by the administration for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in fiscal year 2010, likely requiring a supplemental spending bill to pass sometime early next year. You can expect the fight over that bill to get nasty.

But unlike most of the rest of President Obama’s big ticket items, this one hasn’t broken down along partisan lines. Democrats are balking in droves, and the White House may actually gain the backing of Republicans who have been pushing for an increase along the lines of what General Stanley McChrystal requested in September. Obama’s team will have its hands full cobbling together enough people from both sides of the aisle to get what it wants. Here are a few key congressmen that the White House will have to convince, and where they fall.

Name: Carl Levin (D-Michigan)
Position: Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee
Wants: Self-sufficiency for Afghans
Why He Matters: Levin voiced his opposition to sending more troops to Afghanistan in September, but seems willing to support the president if his proposed strategy places special emphasis on building the capacity of the Afghan army to defend itself. "The key here is an Afghan surge. Not an American surge," he told CBS’s “Face The Nation.” He’s also unwilling, after eight years of the Bush administration’s attempts to hide the full cost of its foreign engagements, to let Obama fund a troop escalation through budget tricks or back channels.

With that in mind, Levin is entertaining congressman David Obey’s proposal to fund increased war spending through a tax increase, but says that the country is facing such economic stress that only those making over $250,000 should be targeted. His opinions on military matters carry substantial weight among senate Democrats (together with colleague Jack Reed, he forced five separate votes on drawing down the scope of the war in Iraq over a 16 month period, winning more votes each time), so Obama must demonstrate that his plan does enough to put the Afghan government on a path to self-sufficiency if he wants to maintain support from within his party.

Name: Representative Dana Rohrabacher (R-California)
Position: Ranking member of the International Organizations, Human Rights, and Oversight subcommittee of the House Foreign Affairs Committee
Wants: Tribal engagement, no troop increase
Why he matters: Dana Rohrabacher, whose presence in the House has been summed up as “colorful,” hasn’t historically been a power player in the Afghanistan debate. But he turned heads and gained liberal plaudits in November, first by praising President Obama’s slow approach to decisionmaking in Afghanistan, and then by coming out strongly against a troop surge and in favor of a bottom-up strategy that would not require additional U.S. forces.

Rohrabacher at least speaks from some experience. In a long, winding floor speech last month, he told of his days spent personally fighting the Taliban in the waning months of the Reagan administration, and of his efforts during the Clinton years to “build an anti-Taliban coalition by uniting ethnic and tribal leaders.” He claimed credit for helping to forge the Northern Alliance, which he said was the force primarily responsible for driving the Taliban south, a “tremendous victory” achieved without vast numbers of U.S. troops. He backs an approach articulated by former Special Forces Major Jim Gant in a paper that has been making the rounds in defense policy circles--and praised last month by David Ignatius--recommending ground-level engagement and integration with Afghan tribes to avoid the perception of overbearing American authority. 

Power player or not, Rohrabacher has already started building alliances with liberal Democrats skeptical of a surge strategy, and could be a key bridge in presenting bipartisan opposition to funding for more troops.

Name: Russ Feingold (D-Wisconsin)
Position: Senior Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee
Wants: A flexible timetable and a viable exit strategy
Why He Matters: Feingold agrees that Obama is doing the right thing by focusing on Afghanistan and Pakistan, but opposes escalating the conflict in Afghanistan without a flexible timetable for withdrawal. A timetable, he argues, would “defuse the perception that we are occupying that country” and propping up what he calls “a weak, corrupt and unpopular government.”

Feingold’s not alone: Last summer, a majority of House Democrats supported an amendment calling for the Obama administration to provide an exit strategy for Afghanistan and the president seems prepared to offer one alongside his announcement to increase troop levels. As one of the few senators to consistently oppose the Iraq war from its inception, Feingold holds real cred among the anti-war crowd. He doesn’t like the idea of pouring more troops and money into Afghanistan because he thinks it might have the perverse effect of destabilizing Pakistan, but a clear timetable and exit strategy might be enough to bring him and like-minded Dems on board.

Name: Representative Ike Skelton (D-Missouri)
Position: Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee
Wants: Whatever General McChrystal wants
Why he matters: Skelton, a self-described Truman Democrat from one of the reddest districts in America, has jurisdiction over all defense authorizations and has backed the McChrystal strategy to the hilt. In September, he sent Obama a six-page letter laying out his reasoning, including a repudiation of the Bush tendency to “half-ass it and hope” in Afghanistan. That puts him in diametric opposition to his counterpart in the Senate, Carl Levin, whom he debated on CBS in October. "We have to have a sense of 'mission accomplished,' and that's beginning to happen in Iraq, but Afghanistan is still a long way away," he told the Washington Times.

In pushing for a troop increase, Skelton has teamed up with Joe Lieberman, penning an op-ed in October that urged fast action to “roll back the Taliban.” The American public, the pair argued, will come around on the troop increase once they see concrete gains there. Both of them, incidentally, have opposed the idea of a public option on health care reform—placating the pair on Afghanistan could give the administration some leverage on another one of its priorities. 

Name: John McCain (R-Arizona)
Position: Ranking Member of the Senate Armed Services Committee
Wants: What General McChrystal wants—and no exit date
Why He Matters: McCain has been among the staunchest advocates for the war in Afghanistan and has criticized the president numerous times for hesitating or backpedaling. A firm believer in following the advice of the generals, he will likely be unhappy with anything Obama proposes that falls short of Stanley McCrystal’s highest option for troop recommendations. McCain agrees that setting concrete benchmarks is important, but he is firmly opposed to the president’s setting an exit date or strategy. “History shows us that if you set dates for when you’re going to leave, the enemy waits until you leave,” he told an audience in Halifax, Canada, in November. “The exit strategy is success,” he insisted.

As a former prisoner of war and longtime expert on national security issues, McCain wields outsize influence among Republicans on whether they should throw their support behind the man he once portrayed as too inexperienced to lead. On the flip side, McCain’s opinions on how to conduct the war run directly counter to those of Feingold and many other Democrats, thereby providing little chance that Obama’s plan will win the support of both camps.

Name: Representative John Murtha (D-Pennsylvania)
Position: Chairman  of the Subcommittee on Defense, House Appropriations Committee
Wants: No more troops, at least until we figure out a way to pay for them
Why he matters: John Murtha, holding the Pentagon’s purse strings, may make or break any attempt at securing more funding for a troop increase—and the prospects are not looking good. It’s not really the cost of the escalation that bothers him: Murtha, rather notoriously, has rarely had a problem with military spending, the lifeblood of his district in rural Pennsylvania.

Rather, what worries Murtha is the idea that escalation in Afghanistan lacks a clear path to victory. In March, he said that the Afghanistan mission had no concrete goal and that it might take as many as 600,000 troops to fully squelch violence in the country. He remained skeptical after the administration released new metrics of success in September, and upon returning this week from a fact finding trip to Afghanistan, he pronounced that he was “still very nervous about this whole thing.” He has projected a revolt of antiwar Democrats against the surge idea, and may end up being the one to lead it.

Lydia DePillis and Jesse Zwick are reporter-researchers for The New Republic.

More on Obama's Afghanistan Speech:

"Obama's Inconsistencies," by Richard Just

"More On Obama's Inconsistencies," by John B. Judis

"How Obama's Surge Is Like Bush's," by Steven Metz

"A Lonely Kind Of Courage," by Elizabeth D. Samet

"Obama Sticks To His Guns," by Michael Crowley

"The Day After: A Hollow Withdrawal Pledge Comes Into Focus," by Michael Crowley

"Sorry, But I Hear Echoes of Vietnam," by John B. Judis

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