Senator Carl Levin said a war tax on higher-earning Americans is not out of the question to support a surge of troops in Afghanistan, but believed such a tax is now too late.
His comments on CBS' "Face the Nation" Sunday came in the wake of a proposal by Rep. David Obey, D-Wisc., for a "war tax" to pay for the Afghan war - particularly in light of President Obama's anticipated increase in U.S. troop strength there.
"In the middle of a recession we're probably not going to be able to increase taxes to pay for it," Levin, D-Mich., told CBS News' Harry Smith. "There should have been, as far as I'm concerned, tax increases for upper bracket folks who did so well during the Bush years - that's where the tax increases should have taken place. But that should have happened some time ago.
"But in the middle of this recession, I don't think you're going to be able successfully or fairly to add a tax burden to middle-income people," Levin said. "I think you could tax the upper brackets, $250,000 or more, but I don't think middle income America is in a position now where they could pay additional taxes because the economic stress is so great here."
Smith asked if the U.S. would still have troops in Afghanistan, if Osama bin Laden has been captured or killed there in 2001.
[says in December 2001 bin Laden was "within the grasp" of the American military in Afghanistan who chose not to pursue him with massive force; consequently the terrorist leader "walked unmolested out of Tora Bora and disappeared into Pakistan's unregulated tribal area," the report said.]
"Maybe not - I would say there would be a good chance we would not have forces or need to have forces there," Levin said. "But this has been kind of well known for some time. We took our eye off the ball. Instead of moving in on him at Tora Bora, the previous administration decided to move its forces to Iraq.
"It was a mistake then."
He said whether President Obama gets Democratic support for his announcement Tuesday to increase troops in Afghanistan depends on the purpose of the mission and whether additional Americans there would help build numbers in the Afghan army.
"If the mission is, as I hope, trying to very quickly build up the Afghan army both in size and in capability and in equipment, if the mission is to give them the capacity to take on the Taliban - and I believe that will be the principal mission stated - that would be one important thing to happen for Democratic support.
"But the second thing which I think there's greater question on is why the additional troops would help increase the size of the Afghan army," he said. "When I was in Afghanistan, I was told that the greatest need in Afghanistan is for more Afghan troops . . . The Marine captain says that the Achilles heel in Afghanistan is the shortage of Afghan troops."
The Senator argued that building the Afghan ranks is very "do-able."
"The Afghans are known to be fighters," he said. "And there's not that kind of ethnic division that existed in Iraq.
"The question, it seems to me, is not whether we should send more mentors and trainers; we should. The issue is how would additional combat forces, additional Marines, for instance, increase the speed of the build-up of the Afghan army? That's what I think the president is going to need to explain because the key to success in Afghanistan is the Afghan army taking on the Taliban."
Levin said it is also important for President Obama to keep pressure on the government of President Karzai to end corruption.
On the question of health care reform legislation, Smith asked Levin if he believed Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has the 60 votes needed to pass?
"I think there's a decent chance that we'll be able to get 60 votes," he replied. "The leader here, Harry Reid, has done a really good job of getting 60 votes to jump that first hurdle which was a procedural hurdle. But I won't underestimate his capability to get us to 60 votes on final passage."
Even with a public option?
"Probably," Levin said, if it's one that states can opt out from.