Marking the third anniversary of the Iraq war, President Bush said US strategy will "lead to victory."
Before recessing last week, the House easily approved $67.6 billion for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan - exactly the amount the White House had requested - and the Senate punted on a bid to censure Mr. Bush on his conduct of the war on terror.
But behind the headlines, Capitol Hill lawmakers are signaling that 2006 must be a decisive year in the Iraq war - and many of the war's vigorous defenders are looking for guidance outside the Bush administration on how to move ahead.
Exhibit A is the quiet launch of an independent, bipartisan panel to bring "fresh eyes" to the Iraq conflict. Last week, the House included $1.3 million in a defense funding bill for the panel, which will work out of the congressionally chartered US Institute for Peace here.
"The purpose of the [Iraq] study group is to come up with a compromise between an administration policy that no one believes in and just walking away," says Edward Luttwak, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, 1 of 4 think tanks supporting the effort. "The study-group process will be mysterious, but the outcome is predictable: They're going to come to the conclusion that the US should disengage, but not abandon Iraq."
The move to develop alternatives to Bush administrative briefings signals a growing distrust on Capitol Hill for the "closed circuit between people sitting inside the Green Zone and the 'good news' being sent back to Washington," says Mr. Luttwak. "Congress is discovering that the Bush administration is repeating its own propaganda - and believes what they are saying."
Last week, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle grilled Pentagon officials on whether Iraq is slipping into civil war - and what role remains for US troops if it does. The House passed by voice vote a Democratic amendment to block funding for a permanent US base in Iraq.
"Despite three years of the best efforts and heroic sacrifices by our military personnel, Iraq is teetering on the edge of the abyss," said Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, ranking Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee. Bush sent Iraqi leaders "the wrong message" last week when he said the process "will require patience by America," the senator said.
Like the 9/11 commission before it, the new Iraq Study Group is being asked to face forward. "We will not be visiting past debates about Iraq. We will leave that to the historians," said cochair and former Rep. Lee Hamilton, who also cochaired the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States.
"We know that the country needs help now in working through this, and we will add whatever we can by way of a constructive contribution," Mr. Hamilton said Wednesday at the launch of the Iraq Study Group in the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing room.
Other members are cochair James Baker III, former secretary of Treasury and State; former CIA director Robert Gates; former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani; and former Sen. Alan Simpson (R) of Wyoming. Democrats on the panel are Leon Panetta, former chief of staff to President Clinton; Clinton adviser Vernon Jordan; former Defense Secretary William Perry; and former Sen. Charles Robb of Virginia. One more Republican will be named to the 10-member panel.
"One of the first things we are going to have to do - and will do - is satisfy ourselves with respect to exactly what are the facts and circumstances with respect to Iraq today," said Mr. Baker, who says the administration will cooperate as panelists travel to Iraq and seek access to people and documents.
Republicans began lobbying the White House for an independent assessment of the war months ago. In September, Rep. Frank Wolf (R) of Virginia wrote in an op-ed that the American public, to stay the course, must "be able to trust that those directing the war have made an honest assessment of what has gone right and what has gone wrong."
One reason Congress is turning to an outside group is that, unlike in previous wars, public opinion on the Iraq war is polarized along party lines. While 77 percent of Republicans say the US is making progress toward establishing a democracy in Iraq, only 34 percent of Democrats are as optimistic, according to a poll last week by the Pew Research Center.
While Democrats did not rally to a motion by Sen. Russell Feingold (D) of Wisconsin to censure the president over domestic surveillance without a warrant, some senators in both parties still question the policy - and the precedent it sets for separation of powers.
"Too often, Democrats cower in the face of illegality," says Senator Feingold. "As soon as the administration raises the specter of being soft on terrorism, Democrats just hide."
"It's a political stunt that's getting in the way of a good, honest debate on checks and balances in a time of war," Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina said last week of the Feingold resolution.
But he adds: "It's an area where the law is very unsettled. I hope we'll vote on it."