Dems Prepare Slew of Oversight Hearings

By JIM KUHNHENN
The Associated Press
Saturday, January 6, 2007; 6:43 PM

WASHINGTON -- In this new era of divided government, the congressional hearing room is where the executive and legislative branches will clash.

Over the next few weeks, Senate Democrats plan to hold at least 11 hearings just on Iraq. In the House, one of the Democrats' most dogged investigators is waiting to spring his committee on a different mission _ suspected government fraud.

From the war to environmental policy and secret surveillance, the Democrats who now control both the House and Senate are armed with subpoena power and ready to summon panels of witnesses.

These newly empowered Democrats plan to put the Bush administration under scrutiny like never before.

"One of the clearest messages of the last election was that the Republican leadership was just AWOL when it came to holding the Bush administration accountable," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

The congressional hearing room is a Washington set piece: A lonely witness at a table covered in red velvet, klieg lights glaring, a determined inquisitor across the floor. Congressional power in its rawest form.

Iraq is the focal point of Democratic efforts.

Beginning this week, when Bush is expected to disclose his new war strategy, three Senate and at least two House committees plan to call Cabinet members to testify about the president's policy.

"We will use these hearings to ask tough questions, demand real solutions and keep working to bring this war to a close," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said Saturday in his party's weekly radio address.

The hearings are one way for Democrats to respond to the party's anti-war wing. Last week, as Democrats prepared to assume power in the new Congress, anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan and a group of protesters interrupted a Democratic press conference, chanting "De-escalate. Investigate. Troops home now!"

The outburst highlighted the limited options Democrats have on redirecting policy in Iraq. Short of cutting off money for the war _ a step Democratic leaders say they will not take _ Congress has little recourse but to agitate publicly against Bush's strategy.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Reid wrote Bush last week to express their opposition to a potential temporary increase in the number of troops in Iraq _ an idea Bush is said to be considering.


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