Congressional Hearing | Video
By Josh Rogin
After a day of sobering testimony by the top U.S. military and civilian officials in Iraq, Democrats in Congress are back to where they have been many times before: trying to figure out how to legislate changes to President Bush’s Iraq War policy.
In testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Gen. David H. Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker announced Tuesday that they would recommend an open-ended freeze of U.S. troop draw-downs from Iraq after July to assess the security situation there.
Democratic leaders were troubled by the announcement and said they would find ways to attach policy strings to the upcoming Iraq War supplemental spending bill and the defense authorization bill.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid , D-Nev., said such measures could include a binding version of withdrawal legislation, language that would require further U.S. reconstruction assistance to Iraq to be provided in the form of loans and a new G.I. bill that would significantly expand educational benefits for veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
Reid met with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., on Tuesday evening to discuss their legislative plans. And House and Senate leaders from both parties planned to meet Wednesday with Bush, who wanted to hear their views about the Petraeus and Crocker testimony, White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said.
But Democrats have often been frustrated in their efforts to change Bush’s war policies because they still lack the 60 votes needed in the Senate to pass controversial language for policy or funding add-ons to the supplemental – let alone the two-thirds needed to override a veto.
Rep. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, said war policy should be based on recommendations of the commanders, not legislated by Congress. “I don’t think we should lay down mandates,” Stevens said. “I want everyone to remember, there are troops in the field that need that money.”
Petraeus and Crocker were scheduled to testify Wednesday before the House Armed Services and Foreign Affairs panels, where members were expected to replay many of the same themes outlined in Monday’s Senate sessions, including administration claims of reduced violence on the ground, the increasingly meddlesome Iranian role in Iraq and the war’s strain on the military.
But the tone was expected to be less highly charged, with presidential politics out of the mix and the public already aware of the officials’ recommendations.
Wednesday’s House hearings will probably be “more straightforward,” said Florida Rep. Adam H. Putnam, the House Republican Conference chairman. “It’ll be a little less awkward than in the Senate, where everyone is running for president,” he said.
An aide to House Foreign Affairs Chairman Howard L. Berman, D-Calif., said the committee’s hearing will seek to avoid a regurgitation of the same material that Tuesday’s hearings brought out. Berman will try to drill deeper into the facts and figures presented by the officials and seek greater clarity on what to expect in the coming months, the aide said.
Republicans intend to use the hearings to highlight what they view as progress in Iraq, including the new combativeness of U.S.-trained Iraqi forces and passage by the Iraqi parliament of several reconciliation laws, a senior Republican aide said. GOP lawmakers also intend to make the case for preserving the flexibility of U.S. commanders on the ground, the aide said.
Bill Delahunt, D-Mass., said he would demand greater congressional involvement in the administration’s long-term agreements with the Iraqi government. “Here we are in April, and no specifics have been provided to the U.S. Congress,” Delahunt said, referring to administration negotiations with Iraq over a long-term agreement spelling out political, economic and strategic relations. “It’s only further evidence that the administration regards Congress as a nuisance.”
Democrats Seek Again to Influence War Policy
Clashes over Congress’ Role
These long-term agreements were a recurring theme in Monday’s Senate sessions, when several Democrats lashed out at Petraeus and Crocker for saying that Congress would be “informed” but not consulted about the negotiations.
“You need to do much more than inform the Congress,” Foreign Relations Chairman Joseph R. Biden Jr. , D-Del., said. “You need to seek permission from the Congress if you want to do anything to tie the hands of the next president.” This provoked applause in the room.
In Armed Services, Crocker admitted under questioning by Hillary Rodham Clinton , D-N.Y., that the Iraqi Parliament would be consulted by their government about the agreement, while the U.S. Congress would not.
“It seems odd to Americans . . . if the Iraqi parliament may have a chance to consider this agreement, that the United States Congress would not,” said Clinton, who has a bill to require that the administration seek Senate approval of any long-term agreements.
Her Democratic rival, Barack Obama of Illinois, questioned whether “the definition of success is so high . . . that [it] portends the possibility of us staying for 20 or 30 years.”
“If we were able to have the status quo in Iraq right now without U.S. troops, would that be a definition of success?” he asked.
Crocker responded, “I can’t imagine the current status quo being sustainable with that kind of a drawdown.”
Sen. John McCain , R-Ariz., the presumed GOP nominee, echoed Petraeus in touting successes from Bush’s troop increase in Iraq, citing declines in civilian and U.S. deaths since U.S. troop strength was raised from 15 to 20 brigades in 2007.
If the United States withdraws before success is assured, McCain warned, “Iraq could become a failed state. It could become a haven for terrorist groups to expand their influence.”
Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., said a pause in withdrawals would fail to hold the Iraqi government’s feet to the fire. “Our current open-ended commitment is an invitation to continuing dependency,” he said. “An open-ended pause starting in July would be just the next page in an war plan with no exit strategy.”