Coming to the Hill: lots of hearing-room drama

Probes of war policies will begin amid ethical scrutiny of members.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

It's going to be a banner year for C-SPAN. That's because Congress is gearing up for the most dramatic slate of hearings since the Clinton impeachment fracas.

The high-profile probes underscore efforts by Congress to reclaim power from a war-time White House. And they could reshape this fall's midterm elections.

In the closing weeks of the old year, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle set in motion an aggressive oversight agenda, ranging from secret prisons and the treatment of detainees under US control, to the president's authorization of domestic eavesdropping without a warrant.

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At the same time, more members of Congress find themselves under scrutiny, as ex-super-lobbyist Jack Abramoff and his former associates work out plea agreements promising cooperation in a widening bribery investigation on Capitol Hill. Former House majority leader Tom DeLay, meanwhile, will face charges of money laundering in court later this month.

In all, the scrutiny on - and from - Congress is a sharp turnaround for a Republican-controlled body that came to power extolling ethics, and one that has been deferential to the Bush presidency about its conduct in the war on terrorism.

"It has clearly been a pattern in the past few months of Congress intensifying its efforts of looking into how the executive branch has handled executive authority, and this will only intensify," says Julian Zelizer, a congressional historian at Boston University. "During the 1970s, Congress was also under scrutiny for how it operated; at the same time, it increased its scrutiny of how the White House conducted the war in Vietnam and intelligence. The two go together," he adds.

A major reason for the new posture on Capitol Hill is the willingness of GOP moderates to challenge the Bush administration's war policies. Alarmed by recent disclosures of secret prisons and eavesdropping without warrants, moderates are joining Democrats on key votes - and behind the scenes - to step up congressional oversight.

Indeed, the limits of executive power will be a key theme in the confirmation hearings for US Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito, which begin next week. As soon as those hearings end, the Senate Judiciary Committee, chaired by GOP moderate Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, will investigate domestic spying by the National Security Administration (NSA).

"When the Bill of Rights is involved, it's time to go into it very deeply," says Senator Specter. "The public has a right to know as much as possible. It's hard to see how a resolution on the use of force can be extended to the conduct involved here."

In a radio address last month, President Bush called the highly classified program of NSA intercepts "critical to saving American lives" - a theme he repeated this weekend in comments to the press.

GOP moderates are teaming up with Democrats to push for a second investigation by the Select Committee on Intelligence. In a Dec. 20 letter, GOP Sens. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska and Olympia Snowe of Maine joined Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein of California, Carl Levin of Michigan, and Ron Wyden of Oregon in calling for an "immediate inquiry" on whether the president exceeded his authority by authorizing wiretapping without a warrant.

Behind the scenes, a battle is also raging on how aggressively to push the White House on reports of secret CIA prisons abroad. Before breaking for the holidays, both the Senate and House called for the director of national intelligence to submit a classified report to the intelligence committees on secret prisons. At the 11th hour, the provision was stripped out of the FY 2006 Defense Authorization bill, with the understanding that the issue would be taken up directly by the intelligence panels.

If GOP chairmen fail to take up the issue, Democrats say they will use it in this year's midterm elections. "Twice now, Congress has overwhelmingly voted to require classified reports on the alleged secret prisons," says Sen. John Kerry (D) of Massachusetts. The Senate vote was 82-9. The House vote, which was nonbinding, was 228-187. "People are going to have to choose between doing what's right for our country and doing the administration's bidding, and if they choose to roll over, then Americans have every right to hold them accountable," he adds.

As Congress wound down last month, an unidentified Republican senator blocked the intelligence authorization bill that included the amendment on secret prisons. It also included an amendment by Sen. Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts requiring the Bush administration to turn over prewar intelligence.

A long-stalled item on the investigative agenda is Phase II of a probe by the intelligence committee into whether the Bush administration manipulated prewar intelligence. After Democrats called the Senate into a rare secret session over this issue, insiders say the committee is now "fully engaged" on this issue, which is also expected to surface early in the new year.

But the biggest wildcard in the new year is how pending criminal investigations will affect members of Congress themselves.

In the run-up to Mr. Abramoff's expected trial date on Jan. 9, members in both parties are returning campaign contributions associated with his name. Since 1999, at least 250 members of Congress have accepted campaign funds from Abramoff or his American Indian clients, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

"This could be the biggest investigation of 2006," says Stephen Hess, professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University.

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