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Waxman Seeks WMD Commission

With the search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq continuing, top Democrats on Capitol Hill are wrestling with how far to push President Bush on the issue and what political gains, if any, they can garner from such efforts.

Although both the House and Senate Intelligence Committees have already begun hearings on Iraq, Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) wants to introduce legislation to create an independent commission to look into what the Bush administration and U.S. intelligence agencies knew about Iraq’s WMD programs before the war started and how that information was presented to Congress and the American public.

The panel would be set up in similar fashion to the commission that has begun hearings on the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, including having the power to subpoena witnesses and documents.

Another option under consideration is to try to attach an amendment to the fiscal 2004 intelligence authorization bill creating an independent commission on Iraq WMD programs. That bill is usually debated under an open rule, potentially giving Democrats a venue to press the GOP leadership on the issue.

Waxman, who voted for the resolution authorizing Bush to use military force in Iraq, declined to comment on his latest proposal. But Democrats sources say that he has informed Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) of his plans.

Waxman has been quietly circulating a draft copy of the initiative to colleagues over the last several days, and is seeking support from high-profile Democrats who backed the Iraq war but now have doubts about what they were told by the White House.

Waxman has been particularly vocal about the claim by Bush and other senior administration officials that former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein tried to buy uranium from the African nation of Niger for nuclear weapons. The charge, included in the president’s State of the Union address last January, has been shown to have been based on forged documents.

“The thing I have been trying to focus on is the whole question … of Iraq becoming a nuclear power,” said Waxman, who added that he based his own vote for the Iraq resolution on the possibility of Hussein acquiring nuclear weapons.

Waxman, ranking member on the Government Reform Committee, has repeatedly demanded that the White House turn over whatever information it has on the Niger incident, although so far the administration has not responded to his requests.

Waxman is one of 81 House Democrats, along with 29 Senate Democrats, who backed the Iraq war but are now to beginning to question the wisdom of that vote.

While most Hill Democrats have refrained from criticizing Bush, several candidates for the party’s presidential nod in 2004, including Sens. Bob Graham (D-Fla.) and John Kerry (D-Mass), as well as former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean (D), have stepped up their rhetoric.

Kerry, who voted for the Iraq resolution, charged last week that Bush “misled” him and the country about the seriousness of Iraq’s WMD capability in order to justify the war, although GOP officials quickly slammed him for hypocrisy, pointing out that just days before the Massachusetts Democrat had said it would be “irresponsible” to make that allegation at this point.

House Democratic leaders have been distracted by the ongoing legislative struggle over Medicare and prescription drugs, and they have yet to reach agreement on how best to exploit the opening some now see on Iraq.

Many Democrats believe time is actually their biggest ally on this issue. If there are no discoveries of WMD caches in Iraq during the coming weeks and months, then questions about Bush’s credibility are certain to increase, according to Democratic insiders.

“Time is on our side,” said a House Democratic leader, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “The longer this goes on, the more it will hurt Bush. And the press is on top of this, and they aren’t going to let Bush and [Vice President] Cheney off the hook.”

A senior House Democratic staffer pointed out that Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.), who backed the Iraq war, has been pushing for an open inquiry into the WMD issue by the Intelligence Committee, where she is the ranking member.

Although Intelligence Chairman Porter Goss (R-Fla.) rejected that request, the committee has begun closed-door hearings on the issue. Waxman’s plan for an independent commission could collide with Harman’s efforts, and at least one senior House Democratic staffer sees a “turf problem” for Waxman as he tries to find backers for his proposal.

Pelosi, who strongly opposed the Iraq resolution, has refused to get drawn into a public debate with the White House on the WMD issue.

“I have concerns that the weapons have not been found, not because of who said what and when, but because if they are so convinced that they were there, where are they?” Pelosi told reporters last week. “And are they still — do they still pose the danger that some thought they did?”

House Republicans leaders have continued to state unequivocally that the Iraq invasion was justifiable, especially in light of the atrocities committed by the Hussein regime that have been discovered in recent weeks by U.S. forces.

But some GOP insiders also grumble that the White House has not done enough to quell the growing chorus of complaints coming from Democrats on Iraq, and fear that continued casualties there could undermine what has so far been a triumph for Bush.

Across the Capitol, Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, has repeatedly called for an open inquiry into the Iraq WMD threat, but has been blocked by Intelligence Chairman Pat Roberts (R-Kan.).

While neither Roberts nor Rockefeller has a reputation as a partisan warrior, the two have clashed repeatedly on this issue, and Rockefeller has threatened to use Intelligence Committee rules to spur a full-blown investigation.

Rockefeller, though, declined to force a vote on an open inquiry during a contentious, closed-door meeting of the full Intelligence Committee last Wednesday, although the West Virginia Democrat had claimed he might do so beforehand.

Rockefeller knew he would lose that vote, according to several Senators from both parties who serve on the committee, and didn’t want to look like he was being overtly partisan on a panel that has traditionally sought to operate in a bipartisan manner.

“There was no way [Rockefeller] could win, so he took what he could get. It was smart,” said a GOP Senator serving on Intelligence.

Following that meeting, Rockefeller and Roberts announced that there would be at least four closed-door hearings on the pre-war intelligence, and that no limits have been placed on what topics can be raised and which witnesses can be called, including Bush administration officials. The two Senators also said a public report may be issued by the panel at some undefined future time, and suggested there would be at least one public hearing on the topic of WMDs.

Senate insiders say that Rockefeller is under heavy pressure from some of the more outspoken Democrats on the committee, including Sens. Carl Levin (Mich.) and Dick Durbin (Ill.), to press for more concessions from Roberts.

“This is not going to end anytime soon,” predicted a high-ranking Senate Democrat. “There’s just too much at stake here for this to get swept under the rug.”

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