Congressman Brian Baird, D-Wash, was kidding when he said he brought his flak jacket back with him after visiting Iraq a few weeks ago.

Maybe he should have.

Baird, who initially opposed the war and as recently as May voted to set a timetable for withdrawal of U.S. forces, now says President Bush’s military surge is showing signs of working and that current troops levels should be maintained until at least spring.

Baird’s newfound support for the war further exposed the increasingly deep divisions and passions over U.S. policies in Iraq and underscored how Iraq continues to overshadow every other issue as Congress returns from its month long summer recess.

Expanded children’s health care, global climate change and energy, reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind education reforms, a farm bill, federal spending and the federal deficit all take a back seat to the war.

“Iraq stands above everything,” said Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash.

A week after Congress returns, Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Cocker will report to four congressional committees about the war’s progress. Republicans hope the report will solidify support for current U.S. policies. Democrats hope it will boost support for a tough withdrawal timetable. The White House is expected to ask for an additional $50 billion for the war effort.

Baird said he hasn’t so much changed his position on Iraq as “adjusted” his thinking after two trips to Iraq in the past four months.

While acknowledging that the Iraq government is “dysfunctional” and the Iraqi people have little confidence in their leaders, Baird said “the (military) situation on the ground is showing signs of improvement.”

Baird said Iraqi, Jordanian and Egyptian leaders warned him in private discussions that the region would descend into chaos if the United States withdrew its forces from Iraq. Baird also said talk of a U.S. pullout has allowed Iraqi leaders to “retrench” and consolidate their power rather than reach out to competing groups and seek a stable common ground.

“We need to keep our force strength where it is until next spring and give the political rhetoric a rest,” he said. “If Democrats were less interested in finding fault and blaming people for a colossal mistake, and if Republicans would stop being super patriots, it would give a chance for our troops on the ground to operate.”

Other Democratic lawmakers refrained from criticizing Baird. But they said he is wrong when it comes to the surge.

“He is expressing his opinion,” Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Wash. “But nothing has changed. The American people overwhelmingly want a change of direction. It’s the No. 1 topic of discussion.”

The United States is running out of troops to fight the war and can’t sustain the $12 billion-a-month cost, Dicks said. He said he hopes Democratic leaders could work out an agreement with Bush to begin a phased withdrawal.

Smith said Baird had “fallen into a trap” set by the administration. While the surge has had some success, “six to eight months down the road where are we? My bottom line for Brian and others is that we are further away from political stability than we were seven or eight months ago. That is undisputable.”

Here’s a look at what else lawmakers face as Congress returns from its summer recess.

— Children’s health: The House and the Senate have approved legislation that could provide health insurance to millions of uninsured children. Differences in the bills must be resolved by a conference committee. The White House and most Republicans back a smaller program.

–Energy: Both chambers have approved energy legislation, though significant differences in the bills will have to be resolved by a conference committee.

The Senate bill increases mileage standards from 27.5 miles per gallon to 35 mpg. The House bill includes no new mileage standards. The Senate bill would quadruple the use of biofuels by 2022, while the House bill maintains current levels. The House bill would require that 15 percent of a utility’s energy come from renewable sources, and it would eliminate $15 billion in tax breaks for the petroleum industry. The Senate bill includes neither provision.

— Farm bill: The House has passed a five-year bill. Critics say the bill continues the same subsidy programs for wheat, cotton, soybean, rice and corn growers that have cost taxpayers billions of dollars.

–Appropriations: All 12 appropriations bills have passed the House, but the Senate has approved only one. The White House has threatened to veto almost all of the measures because they exceed the president’s requests. There has been talk of a confrontation between Congress and the administration that could lead to a government shutdown.

(David Whitney contributed to this report. Contact Les Blumenthal at lblumenthal(at)

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