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Democrats Planning Watchdog Role

Senators' Hearings Will Scrutinize Administration Policies

By Helen Dewar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 14, 2004; Page A10

Senate Democrats announced plans yesterday for wide-ranging hearings to examine Bush administration policies and conduct, saying the Republicans who control both houses of Congress have abdicated responsibility for oversight of the GOP administration.

"The congressional watchdog remains fast asleep, and we intend to wake him up," said Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (N.D.), who announced the party's plan at a Capitol Hill news conference.

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Dorgan, chairman of the Senate Democratic Policy Committee, which will sponsor the hearings, said they will begin in January, with the subject of the first couple of sessions to be announced later this month.

Republicans will be invited, and the Democrats will not conduct hearings on a particular subject if a GOP-controlled committee decides to do so, said Dorgan and incoming Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.), who joined Dorgan by satellite from Las Vegas.

Dorgan and Reid listed possible targets for the hearings, including contract abuses in Iraq, the administration's use of prewar intelligence, misleading cost estimates for the Medicare drug benefit, the cost of the administration's plan for private Social Security accounts, the implementation of the No Child Left Behind education bill and administration policies on global warming.

Holding up a large photograph of President Harry S. Truman, Dorgan said Truman as a Democratic senator conducted hearings on defense contract abuses by a Democratic administration; Dorgan suggested that Iraq contracts would be a major focus of the new hearings.

The hearings are part of a broader effort by Senate Democrats to strengthen their message and create mechanisms for getting it out after their four-seat loss in the November elections. They have announced a beefed-up communications operation, including a "war room" for rapid response to the administration and to the Senate Republican majority.

But Democrats will have no subpoena powers to compel the testimony of witnesses and release of documents, which can be issued by regular Senate committees. Dorgan said he expected there are "plenty of whistle-blowers" who will be eager for a forum, and Reid noted that Senate committees rarely have to resort to subpoenas.

Dorgan denied that Democrats were pursuing a partisan agenda in scheduling the hearings, although it was clear they were trying to raise the profile of their case against the Republicans on a variety of sensitive political issues.

"This is not about gotcha politics. . . . This is about oversight," Dorgan said. "If the majority party won't do it, we will." There was no immediate response from GOP leaders.

Reid said he thought the Foreign Relations Committee was doing a "pretty good job" on oversight, and he expected the newly expanded Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee to perform well. But, with Republicans in control of the executive and legislative branches of government, most other panels have virtually given up on investigations and oversight, Dorgan and Reid said.

By contrast, Dorgan said the GOP-controlled Congress conducted numerous hearings on activities of President Bill Clinton's administration.

Dorgan said he expects that 12 to 15 Democrats will form a Committee on Oversight and Investigations, which will conduct the hearings.

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