The Waiting Game

The Waiting Game

Expect a flurry of hearings on Iraq when the new Democrat-controlled Congress convenes. But no real action from lawmakers or the President is likely to be taken.


First, Washington waited–and waited–for the Iraq Study Group report. Once the bipartisan panel issued its verdict (the war is nearly lost) and unveiled its not so impressive seventy-nine recommendations (withdraw combat troops by early 2008 if conditions permit; boost training for an Iraqi military yet to demonstrate coherence, competence or loyalty to a working government; lean on that fractured Iraqi government to achieve national reconciliation; talk to Iran and Syria), the capital redirected the waiting game at George W. Bush, who promised to offer his own plan after New Year's. But few policy-meisters within the Beltway expect a major shift from the White House. (Incoming Senate majority leader Harry Reid met with Bush and concluded, according to spokesman Jim Manley, that Bush is "not interested in any dramatic change.") So Washington could soon be waiting for another set of players to weigh in: the Democrats. Come early January, the party will have the power to do more than grouse about the war. But anyone anticipating quick and decisive action from the Dems will have to keep waiting.

In the new Congress there will be much Iraq-related activity, but the Democrats will present no master plan to remove America from the debacle. They will mount a flurry of hearings, scrutinize the war budget and introduce differing bills. Senators Carl Levin, Joseph Biden and Jay Rockefeller–incoming chairs, respectively, of the Armed Services, Foreign Relations and Intelligence committees–plan an array of hearings. Levin aims to examine the military strategy in Iraq. He might continue his quest to dig up information on the Pentagon cell, created by former Under Secretary Douglas Feith, that funneled misleading intelligence to the White House before the war. Biden, who has proposed turning Iraq into a federation of three autonomous regions, intends to examine alternate policies. Rockefeller is looking to complete the long-delayed Phase II inquiry of the Administration's use (or abuse) of prewar intelligence.

On the House side, Jack Murtha, who will take over the defense appropriations subcommittee, wants to probe misuse of reconstruction spending. Henry Waxman, next chair of the Government Reform Committee, will zero in on fraud, waste and abuse in military contracting. Tom Lantos, incoming chair of the International Relations Committee, also wants to probe the reconstruction failure. And Ike Skelton, in line to head Armed Services, has vowed to examine the strain the war has put on the military and the adequacy of assistance to the troops.

Although Reid and Speaker-to-be Nancy Pelosi are trying to coordinate the hearings on their respective sides of the Capitol, they could become a hodgepodge. "At the moment, we are focused specifically on the first two weeks, which will be the 'Six in '06' priorities," says a Pelosi aide, referring to legislation on domestic issues Pelosi hopes to pass immediately. It might have been wise for the Democrats to plan one prominent set of joint hearings, a series that would focus on all Iraq matters. But that's not how a Congress full of hard-to-control chiefs tends to operate.

Before, after or during this blitz of hearings, the Dems may introduce legislation pressuring Bush to start disengaging from Iraq. Senator Levin, who advocates a troop withdrawal starting within four to six months, estimates that there are at least fifty senators who would vote for such a measure, and he says several Republican senators have expressed interest.

Levin, Biden and Reid are all touting the possibility of a bipartisan resolution urging Bush to change course–a prospect enhanced by several Senate GOPers who recently broke with the White House: Chuck Hagel called on Bush to "begin planning for a phased troop withdrawal"; Gordon Smith decried Bush's Iraq policy as "absurd," noting that it "may even be criminal" and urging a withdrawal "quicker rather than later"; Sam Brownback demanded that Bush lean on the Iraqi government to achieve a "political equilibrium," even if that entails partitioning the country.

Legislators can pass resolutions demanding that Bush remake his Iraq policy, but the Decider in Chief is free to ignore them. Congress has power only over the war's financing. This spring the Bush White House is expected to ask for another $100 billion or so for the war. But Democratic Senate and House leaders have said they have no interest in compelling a withdrawal by choking off funds. Representative Jim McGovern, a liberal Democrat from Massachusetts, has been pushing legislation for the past year that would defund the war. The House leadership, he says, "does not have a lot of sympathy for this. Some Democrats do not want to be blamed for losing Iraq." McGovern, whose bill has drawn only nineteen supporters, notes that many Democrats still hope Bush will disengage so they don't have to do the heavy lifting of forcing a pullout. "But," he adds, "the Bush strategy is to push the war on to the next Administration. There will be action [by the Democratic-controlled Congress], but not enough to extricate ourselves."

Pelosi, Reid, Levin, Murtha and most Democrats advocate withdrawal in some form. The question is, How hard will they push? "We're going to continue to hold the President's feet to the fire," says Manley, Reid's spokesman. But, he adds, "at the end there's only so much we can do." Which means the waiting–and the war–will likely continue.

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