Capitol Hill prepares for tough hearings on Iraq

A growing number in Congress oppose a troop surge, but will not vote against funding the war.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Even before President Bush lays out his "new way forward" in Iraq, the Demo-cratic majority in Congress and a growing number of Republicans say they will oppose any troop surge – but not to the point of blocking funding for the war.

That means a key aspect of the president's plan, expected to be unveiled this week, will run into a wall of words on Capitol Hill, but not much more.

"We're not going to fight their civil war for them," says Rep. Ellen Tauscher (D) of California, who chairs the strategic forces subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee. She supports a shift of existing US forces out of areas of sectarian violence.

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But if the president insists on adding forces into the most troubled areas, would she vote to deny him the funds to carry out his plan? "No," she says. "That's why he's got us over a barrel."

Still, oversight hearings convening across Capitol Hill, beginning this week, mark an escalation in congressional opposition to the war, including among members of the president's own party.

Beginning Tuesday new Democratic committee chairmen are launching hearings on issues ranging from military strategy, reconstruction, and diplomacy in the region to the Iraqi refugee crisis.

"We will use these hearings to ask tough questions, demand real solutions, and keep working to bring this war to a close," said Senate majority leader Harry Reid, in the Democratic response to Bush's weekly radio address on Saturday.

Citing the advice of current and past military leaders, Democratic leaders on the Hill are opposing any move to pour additional troops into Iraq, even before Bush announces his plan. Instead, they called on him to begin a "phased redeployment" of US forces in the next four to six months, shifting the mission from combat to "training, logistics, force protection, and counterterror."

"Adding more combat troops will only endanger more Americans and stretch our military to the breaking point for no strategic gain," said Senator Reid and Speaker Nancy Pelosi in a joint letter to the president Friday.

But they, too, say they will not block funding for the war. "It's not on the table," said Reid, after a briefing Friday.

Leading off this month's blitz of Iraq hearings, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is set to convene a closed intelligence briefing Tuesday afternoon. In all, it plans a dozen hearings on the war this month. These hearings, says chairman Joseph Biden (D) of Delaware, will be "workmanlike," rather than sensational. They are intended to give Americans a sober look at the state of play in Iraq and build consensus for a way forward. "No foreign policy can be sustained in this country without the informed consent of the American people," he adds.

Even in a time of diminishing public support for the war, lawmakers are wary of challenging the president as commander in chief, especially if they could later be tied into losing a war.

"I think to basically begin to withdraw before the job is finished is a mistake. If the president recommends what we seem to believe he's going to recommend, I intend to support him," said Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, in an interview on Fox News on Sunday.

Yet Congress's ability to influence Bush, should he decide to send tens of thousands of new forces into Iraq, is "very limited," says Norman Ornstein, senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. "Theoretically, they could block the funding, but practically, it's not going to happen.

"The American people may not like this war but if you do something that undercuts the commander in chief and creates a potential for chaos, voters will blame you for decades," he adds.

Meanwhile, new Republican opposition to the war is surfacing in Congress. On Friday, Rep. Heather Wilson (R) of New Mexico staked out early opposition to any plan to add more troops in the region.

"I am not a supporter of a surge to do for Iraqis what they will not do for themselves," she said, after returning from a trip to Iraq last week.

But she would not vote to stop funding the war. "The answer is never to stop paying for food for our soldiers. We can't do that," she adds.

Representative Wilson, who served in the Air Force from 1978-89, is one of several Republicans who cite recent trips to the region as the basis for their dissent. In December, Sens. Norm Coleman (R) of Minnesota and Gordon Smith (R) of Oregon broke ranks with the White House on Iraq.

In support of the White House, Sens. John McCain (R) of Arizona and Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, who calls himself an Independent Democrat, stepped up calls for a sustained surge of US forces into Iraq.

"I believe the war is still winnable, but we're going to have to do everything right," said Senator McCain, in a speech before the American Enterprise Institute Friday. "The worst of all worlds is a small, short surge of American forces," he says. A time-limited deployment signals to insurgents that they "can wait it out," McCain says.

A majority of Americans are against increasing troop levels in Iraq. Only about 1 in 5 voters supports sending in more troops, according to a recent survey by the Cook Political Report.

And the intensity of hearings and debate this month could step up pressure on the Bush White House. "In a democracy, you simply cannot go on indefinitely, if you have lost the public, and there's increasing opposition from an increasing share of the political elite. It's an extremely difficult political environment," says Mr. Ornstein.

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