In a blunt challenge to President Bush, the leader of the Senate’s new Democratic majority said Monday he will “look at everything” within his power to wind down the war in Iraq, short of cutting off funding for troops already deployed.
“I think we’ve got to tell the president what he’s doing as wrong. We’ve got to start bringing our folks home,” said Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, in remarks that portend a struggle if, as expected, Bush announces plans later this week for an increase in troop strength of 20,000.
Another senior Democrat, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, said one option under consideration would be for lawmakers to vote on denying the use of funds for any increase in the U.S. deployment. Officials said late Monday night that the Massachusetts Democrat was preparing legislation that would require Congress to approve the deployment of more troops, and was hoping for a roll call on the topic swiftly Ã¢â‚¬â€ before any increase is implemented.
More broadly, Reid signaled that Bush’s expected call for an additional $100 billion for the war would receive close scrutiny from newly empowered Democrats.
“We have a platform we didn’t have before, Leader Pelosi and I, and we’re going to … focus attention on this war in many different ways,” said Reid. Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., suggested over the weekend using Congress’ power of the purse to restrain any troop buildup.
More than 3,000 U.S. troops have lost their lives in Iraq in a war nearing the end of its fourth year, and many Democrats attribute their success in last fall’s elections to public opposition to the conflict.
The election results, combined with an assessment by the bipartisan Iraq Study Group that the situation in Iraq was “grave and deteriorating,” coincided with Bush’s effort to begin work on a revised policy.
He is expected to make a nationwide televised address on the issue on Wednesday. Several officials have said one leading option for Bush is a so-called “surge” in troop strength, in which about 20,000 troops would be added to the force already in place, in hopes that sectarian violence can be quelled.
The debate over the war has overshadowed the early days of the new Democratic-controlled Congress and a politically potent domestic agenda that leaders had planned.
The Senate began debate Monday on legislation to toughen ethics rules and crack down on lobbyists’ influence. The bill is a response to what Democrats have called a Republican “culture of corruption.” In the House, Democrats have already passed some ethics changes.
On security matters, they intend to begin work Tuesday on legislation to implement nearly all of the remaining recommendations of the commission that investigated the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. “If this bill is enacted, funded and implemented, the American people will be safer,” said Lee Hamilton, who was a member of the commission.
That legislation carries no price tag, and the money to pay for the increased protections will have to be approved separately. At a news conference, Pelosi sidestepped when asked about the cost, saying that any increases in spending would be offset to make sure they did not increase the deficit.
Legislation that Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., proposed in the Senate last year would have implemented the 9/11 commission’s recommendations at an estimated cost of $53.3 billion over five years.
Bush met with several members of Congress during the day, part of a series of meetings held in advance of announcing his new Iraq policy.
White House press secretary Tony Snow said the president “understands there is a lot of public anxiety” about the war. Yet he said that Americans “don’t want another Sept. 11” type of terrorist attack and it is wiser to confront terrorists overseas in Iraq and other battlegrounds rather than in the United States.
As commander in chief, Bush has wide constitutional authority to direct the military. Congress’ principal power lies in its ability to control federal funding.
Yet the Democratic takeover in Congress means that for the first time since the war began, persistent critics of the administration’s policy are in control in both the House and Senate.
“We ought to insist that the Congress and the Senate take action, so that before we’re going to have a surge (of troops), the members of Congress and the members of the Senate will have an opportunity to speak on this issue,” said Kennedy.
He noted that Congress could prohibit the money it authorizes for Iraq from being spent on a troop buildup. “It’s something that’s under discussion,” said the Massachusetts Democrat.
Other alternatives have emerged in recent days, although several officials said Democratic leaders had not yet settled on a course of action.
Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, the Senate’s second-ranking Democrat, has suggested a limit on the number of troops that could be deployed to the war.
“It is time for us to announce we achieved our goals in Iraq and now the American people need to hand this responsibility over to the people of that nation in Iraq,” he said.
Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., a potential presidential candidate, said that while he opposes any measure that would increase the risk to troops already deployed, “the central question then becomes, is there a way of conditioning appropriations so that the president is constrained and that’s something that we’re investigating right now.”
Other Democrats have discussed the possibility of forcing votes on nonbinding legislation calling on Bush to begin a troop withdrawal Ã¢â‚¬â€ the type of measure that served as a flashpoint in the election-year debate over the war.
In addition, Democrats intend to require senior administration officials to run a virtual gantlet of hearings at which the war policy could be explored in great detail Ã¢â‚¬â€ from the mission of the troops to alleged fraud in the use of funds to rebuild Iraq.
Officials said a few Democrats have discussed holding a fresh vote on authorizing the war, which Congress approved before Bush dispatched troops more than four years ago.
Bush’s recent decision to name a new ambassador to Baghdad and shuffle the military commanders in the region will lead to Senate confirmation hearings.
Rep. Ike Skelton, D-Mo., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said another option is to limit “a particular military program or effort.” He offered no elaboration.
Copyright Ã‚Â© 2007 The Associated Press