By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 8, 2007
Democratic leaders who had hoped to emphasize their domestic agenda in the opening weeks of Congress have concluded that Iraq will share top billing, and they plan on aggressively confronting administration officials this week in a series of hearings.
Pushed by House members who want a quick, tough response to the Iraq strategy President Bush is expected to announce this week, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has backed off from her initial assertion that nothing should detract attention from the legislation she hopes to pass in the first 100 hours of House debate.
Late last week, she summoned the chairmen of the Armed Services, Foreign Affairs, intelligence, Homeland Security, and Oversight and Government Reform committees to plot a series of hearings. On Thursday, Democrats will call Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to appear before the House Foreign Affairs Committee to defend the war-strategy shift Bush will outline in a nationally televised speech.
A House Armed Services Committee hearing with Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Marine Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, planned for Jan. 19 was abruptly moved to this Thursday after consultations with Pelosi. And leadership aides went to work on a response to Bush's speech that they hope will be delivered on national television after the president's appearance.
In the Senate, the Foreign Relations Committee will hold hearings Wednesday on the current situation in Iraq, then grill Rice on the president's plan Thursday. Pace and Gates will go before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Friday.
"Iraq is the elephant in the room," said Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif.), a member of the House Armed Services Committee and a close ally of Pelosi's.
Democrats had hoped that the headlines and evening news would be dominated by votes in Congress to bolster homeland security, raise the minimum wage, fund stem cell research and grant the federal government authority to negotiate lower drug prices for Medicare. Each of those measures will be taken up on sequential days this week, a bill-a-day approach designed to capture headlines and show the nation that Democrats can get things done.
But with Bush's long-awaited policy address tentatively set for midweek, those much-touted bills are not likely to lead the news, and the Democratic leaders have been forced to change their tactics.
"The challenge for them is this: Iraq is the central issue. It's an enormous problem for the president and the Republicans, but it has the suffocating effect of taking attention away from the Democrats' domestic legislative priorities, and I think they understand that," said Joe Lockhart, a White House press secretary in the Clinton administration.
To some Democrats, the House leaders' response to the burgeoning war debate has been too slow and too cautious. A CBS News poll released Thursday found that 45 percent of voters want the Democratic Congress to focus on Iraq, a figure that far outstripped the percentages for the economy and jobs, at 7 percent; health care, at 7 percent; and immigration, at 6 percent. "Americans couldn't be clearer," the poll report concluded.
Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich (D-Ohio), a leader in the antiwar movement, said that as soon as Bush delivers his proposal, Democratic leaders need to be ready with a thorough plan to end the war. Kucinich will outline his own war plan in a speech in New York today.
"When Democrats were in the minority, the default position of the Republican leadership was to take the war off the table, but the war is the 800-pound gorilla," he said. "It ain't moving off the table. Congress has to intervene right now."
Early Friday afternoon, Rep. Martin T. Meehan (D-Mass.), a House Armed Services Committee member, groused that an Iraq hearing planned for Jan. 19 was at least a week too late. "We on the Armed Services [Committee] feel strongly that we need to begin the hearing process immediately," he said.
By late afternoon, the hearing was rescheduled for this week.
Some Democratic strategists urged party members to stick to their original plan, passing kitchen-table legislation every day, such as the minimum-wage increase and the stem cell bill, while Bush struggles with the war. Celinda Lake, a Democratic strategist and pollster, called it "the perfect juxtaposition."
"People are not looking to their individual members of Congress to solve the Iraq war," she said. "For the House to be focused on it now would look like partisan bickering rather than getting on with the people's business."
Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.) agreed that the Democrats have the winning hand. Bush may be grabbing the spotlight by shaking up his war advisers, bolstering troop strength in Baghdad and pushing more money into Iraq reconstruction, but the news reports are doing him no good, he said.
"I know where support for more troops is, and I know where support is for the minimum-wage increase," said Emanuel, the fourth-ranking House Democrat. "I'd rather be doing what we're doing."
By the weekend, however, Emanuel had acknowledged the Democrats' strategic shift. He still was not worried that Bush might be scoring political points, but he said the Democrats have to respond.
"This is not a surge; it's an escalation, and we want to make sure the definition is correct," he said. "When the American people voted for change in November, this is not what they had in mind."