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Congress Will Battle Over Iraq, Economy

The House and Senate return to session today prepared to do battle simultaneously on two separate legislative fronts: the economy and Iraq.

The Senate will reconsider this week a Democrat-backed housing stimulus measure that bogged down in February. Both chambers are also working to reach agreement on a bill retooling the Federal Housing Administration, while the chairmen of the two top Congressional banking committees floated new housing reform plans over the recess. And members will begin the slow, complicated progress of vetting the Bush administration's ambitious proposal to restructure the nation's entire financial regulatory system.

Any far-reaching action on the housing front will require some degree of bipartisan cooperation in order to reach the 60-vote hurdle in the Senate and avoid a veto by President Bush. But Democrats are also eager to use the issue to paint Republicans as out-of-touch and more interested in helping big banks than struggling homeowners.

With housing worries and the economic downturn continuing to dominate the news over the just-completed recess, such actions were expected. But Iraq will also play a leading role on the Capitol Hill agenda in the two-month sprint to Memorial Day, as Congress considers the latest supplemental appropriations bill to fund the war.

As has been the case since the conflict began, House and Senate Democrats have had a tough time settling on a unified and coherent strategy for how to deal with Iraq. Members are split over whether to allow Bush's "surge" strategy to continue or push for a rapid withdrawal of troops. And even among the majority of Democrats who want a withdrawal, there is no consensus on whether to do so according to a specific timeline or on how many U.S. troops should be left behind in the country to ensure stability.

Most Republicans, meanwhile, remain committed to the surge, particularly with their presumed presidential nominee, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), so closely identified with the strategy. But the GOP is also aware that polling shows most of the country wants the troops brought home, and that last week's milestone of the 4,000th U.S. soldier dying in the war only increases that pressure.

The first test of both parties' message will come next week. The top U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, and ambassador Ryan Crocker will testify before a pair of Senate committees on Tuesday, April 8, and before the House Armed Services panel the following day. Members will likely do battle over the latest statistical measures of violence in Iraq, and over whether the current battle against Shiite militias is a wise strategy.

Later in April, both chambers are likely to begin substantive work on the latest Iraq spending bill with an eye toward completing it before Memorial Day. That measure will present Democratic leaders with a difficult choice, as antiwar lawmakers are expected to push for attaching troop withdrawal language to the funding bill. The strategy has been unsuccessful so far in forcing Bush's hand, and House leaders have suggested they may seek to move such language separately this year.

Election years typically make poor soil for the growth of big-ticket legislative items on Capitol Hill, so this two-month stretch before the next recess represents one of the last windows for Congress to get substantive work done before campaign season heats up and the party conventions roll around in late summer. With the economy and the war both at critical stages, members should have more than enough work to fill that tightening calendar.

By Ben Pershing  |  March 31, 2008; 12:01 PM ET
Categories:  Agenda , Iraq  
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