Congress Returns to War

Posted March 28, 2008 at 5:41pm

Following a long hiatus as House and Senate lawmakers focused on domestic economic issues, the Iraq War will finally return to the spotlight on Capitol Hill this month as lawmakers prepare to take up a new supplemental war spending bill.

In the Senate, Democrats and Republicans will spend much of the week looking to set the stage for next week’s Armed Services Committee and Foreign Relations Committee hearings when the U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, returns to the Hill.

He will deliver a report to the Senate next week detailing the progress under President Bush’s 2007 troop buildup.

While Petraeus successfully parlayed the troop “surge” into a reduction in overall violence in Iraq for much of the last year, in recent weeks there has been an uptick in violence.

Republicans, who used the military successes of the troop increase to reimpose discipline and unity on the Senate Conference that was deeply fractured a year ago, are expected to use this week and next to reaffirm their support for the buildup and the war in general.

One senior GOP leadership aide said last week that few changes are expected in the GOP’s game plan, which has been successfully used to beat back repeated efforts by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to impose a timetable for an end to the war.

“I don’t think there’ll be any changes. There’s a real sense of unity,” the aide said.

While Republicans are looking for a repeat of the political stalemates over the buildup that characterized the Iraq debates of 2007, Reid aims to expand the debate to the broader costs of the war. “It’s about much more than just the surge. It’s this entire war,” a senior Democratic leadership aide said Friday, adding that Democrats this week will look to frame Petraeus’ trip to the chamber through this broader lens. Democrats have to make the focus “a much broader view of the impact of this war,” the aide said.

As part of that effort, Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Joseph Biden (D-Del.) will hold hearings on the cost and the long-term outlook for U.S. involvement in Iraq to frame Petraeus’ report.

Democratic sources said Thursday that the House leadership has not detailed a strategy, and that lawmakers do not want to endorse any plans before Petraeus’ testimony next week.

“There will be an aggressive effort to highlight the discrepancies of what we hear in Washington and what we see on the ground in Iraq,” said one Democratic leadership aide.

With the economy now topping the war as the public’s top issue, Democrats also are expected to emphasize the contrast between spending for the war and troubles at home, a message the majority has previously used but has not made its priority.

“The war will cost Americans more than $3 trillion and continues to jeopardize our military’s ability to respond to threats anywhere else on the globe,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said in a statement Thursday calling for President Bush to end the war. “Money spent in Iraq is desperately needed at home to educate our children, rebuild our infrastructure and provide health care for millions of Americans.”

House Republicans are readying their response in defense of the military officials.

“There is no more important issue than the security of the United States, and winning the war in Iraq is central to that effort,” said Michael Steel, a spokesman for House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio). “The decisions we make on this issue should be based on facts, not ideology. Gen. Petraeus and Ambassador [to Iraq Ryan] Crocker are America’s point men in this conflict. We need to listen to their testimony and move forward in a way that allows our troops to come home as soon as possible after success, and not defeat.”

Liberal Democrats in the Congressional Progressive Caucus are expected to highlight the failure to achieve political reconciliation in Iraq, while also continuing to push for the withdrawal of troops.

Under a measure introduced last month by the caucus’s co-chairwomen, Reps. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) and Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.), a quarterly timetable would be implemented, returning 25 percent of the troops at each deadline, while also restricting spending to support only redeployment.

But the proposal is unlikely to become law. Although Democrats have had some success in moving their proposals through the House, the Senate has largely rejected specific timetables for the war.