Time for the Democrats to prove they can deal with Iraq

Congress returns to work on Thursday, where Democrats will inherit a congressional agenda dominated by the war in Iraq, increasing their exposure to what has only been a politically damaging issue for Republicans.

In the weeks ahead, the new Democratic Congress will be confronted with President Bush’s new plan for Iraq and a White House request that lawmakers authorize an estimated additional $100 billion to pay for the war.

Democrats also may be asked to support a plan lifting restrictions on reserve deployments to ease the strain on active-duty troops.

While Democrats may try to deflect as much attention as they can toward Bush — citing the president’s ownership of the war and congressional limitations on foreign policy — they no doubt will find themselves playing a starring role in a debate that cost Republicans votes in the midterm elections last fall.

“They’ll have to show they can govern and govern in a way that will help the executive branch resolve this,” said James Thurber, director of American University’s Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies.

But resolving Iraq won’t be easy, and Democrats run the risk of going too far in criticizing the president. Recent polls show Americans remain frustrated with Bush’s handling of the war, but don’t think Democrats have offered much of an alternative.

“They will be in the majority, and they will be blamed if they try to block the president from implementing an exit strategy,” Thurber said.

The president is thought to be considering a plan to increase the number of forces in Iraq. But the specifics of how many troops will be added to the existing 140,000 force and for how long are not known.

Bush said last week he planned to engage lawmakers before making his announcement later this month. Congressional leaders planned to attend a White House reception expected at midweek.

Foreshadowing the debate to come, Democrats swiftly rallied against the notion of sending more troops, saying Iraqis must take a stronger role in security matters.

“The Iraqis need to understand that the responsibility for the future of that country is theirs,” Rep.-elect Jerry McNerney, D-Calif., said Saturday in the Democrats’ weekly radio address.

“I have not heard from our military, clamoring for additional soldiers,” Rep. Jim Marshall, D-Ga., said upon returning from a trip to Iraq with Gen. Peter Schoomaker, the Army chief of staff.

Marshall and Rep. Ike Skelton, D-Mo., who also visited Iraq during the Christmas holiday, reported that some progress was being made in Anbar province where Iraqi security forces and local leaders were collaborating to push out al-Qaida fighters. But, Skelton said, violence in Baghdad has accelerated and additional U.S. troops might not help.

“I will look carefully and with an open mind at any proposal the president may make, but my view remains that removing some number of American troops — however small — would send a more powerful message to our Iraqi partners than raising force levels,” Skelton said.

The debate will play out in hearing rooms next month. Skelton and Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., who will head the Senate Armed Services Committee, have invited Defense Secretary Robert Gates to testify.

Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., incoming chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has promised to testify before his committee after Bush makes his announcement.

Democrats say they also want to hear from independent military experts and members of the Iraq Study Group.

The debate also will play out in Congress’s review of the president’s spending requests for the war. The Pentagon says it needs an additional $99.7 billion to fund the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan until the end of the current fiscal year in September. That request is expected to arrive on Capitol Hill in February.

Democrats are eyeing ways to attach conditions to war funds that won’t hurt troops and may even attract Republican support.

John Podesta, former President Clinton’s chief of staff and now president of the liberal Center for American Progress, recommends lawmakers demand in that spending bill that the president seek lawmakers’ approval if troop levels exceed 150,000 in Iraq.

Democrats in 2007 may be confronted with another politically sensitive Iraq issue regarding whether to support increased involuntary call-ups of Guard and Reserve troops. In December, Schoomaker warned that the Army will break without adding more active-duty soldiers to the ranks and changing current mobilization policies backed by Pentagon civilians

The issue of allowing lengthy involuntary deployments is a tricky one for lawmakers who want to reduce the pressure on active-duty forces but also hear from reservists that they too are facing serious hardships.

Biden and other Democrats agree that Iraq will dominate much of their work next year, but contend they must not be blamed for a war run ultimately by the president. “This is President Bush’s war,” Biden said.

But political experts say the public might not agree.

“When you’re in the minority, you don’t have to do much more than criticize the status quo that wasn’t working,” said Norman Ornstein, a scholar with the American Enterprise Institute. “When you’re in the majority, people will look to you for leadership.”

Copyright © 2007 The Associated Press