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Iraq Hearings: What to Watch For

Some days, when the Senate has dozens of amendments to comb through, the chamber has what is known as a "vote-a-rama." Today and tomorrow might appropriately called "hearing-a-ramas," as four different House and Senate panels are holding separate sessions on political and military progress in Iraq.

The Senate gets first crack today at the star witnesses who will make a quartet of appearances -- Gen. David Petraeus, the U.S. commander in Iraq, and Ryan Crocker, the American ambassador to Iraq. The two men will testify before the Armed Services Committee beginning at 9:30 a.m., followed by the Foreign Relations Committee at 2:30 p.m. The House is up Wednesday, with that chamber's Armed Services panel beginning at 9 a.m., and the Foreign Affairs Committee kicking off at 1 p.m.

With plenty of television coverage on tap, you can expect to see lots of lengthy opening statements by members on both sides of the aisle. You can expect to see all three of the Senate's presidential candidates make rare visits to Capitol Hill to get their questions in -- John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) at the Armed Services hearing, and Barack Obama (D-Ill.) at Foreign Relations.

You can expect Republicans to praise Petraeus to the skies for his leadership, and caution against undue haste in withdrawing troops from Iraq. You can expect Democrats to emphasize that the Iraqi government has not done its part to keep its own house in order, and that recent reductions in violence have not begat much measurable political progress in the country. You can also expect a debate about financial priorities, as Democrats have spent the last several days breaking down what the funding for one day of Iraq operations could pay for on the domestic front.

The divisions between Democrats and Republicans on Iraq are as old as the war itself. As Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) told the Washington Post in a story Monday, "It's all completely predictable this time, what everyone is going to say."

But there are also intraparty rifts. Even many Republicans would like to hear clearer answers on when more troops will be coming home, particularly since the Hill GOP is already in a defensive crouch going into November's elections. And Democrats have been unable to force a change of course in Iraq at least partly because they have been unable to agree among themselves over how hard to push.

On Friday, 16 top Democratic leaders and chairmen from both chambers sent President Bush a letter expressing their fear that "you and the congressional Republican leadership are intent on staying the current course" through the end of Bush's term in office. The letter outlines a "four-part strategy to change course" in Iraq. The strategy includes 1) seeking political accommodation among warring factions; 2) restoring the U.S. Army and Marine Corps' readiness levels; 3) shifting more resources to Afghanistan and Pakistan; and 4) focusing more on dealing with Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

But soon after that letter was released, fervent anti-war Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) released his own statement saying he was "deeply disappointed with the letter" for not calling flatly for a troop withdrawal. "Contrary to what the letter suggests, we should not be waiting around for a 'political accommodation which will allow us to reduce U.S. troop levels substantially.' We must redeploy our troops to break the paralysis that now grips U.S. strategy in the region," Feingold said.

That's where the battle lines are drawn -- as they have been for years now -- within the Democratic party. We'll hear some evidence of that divide during today's and tomorrow's hearings. And we'll hear a lot more of it in late April and early May, when Congress is expected to consider a war spending supplemental bill. Will Democratic leaders try to attach withdrawal language to the funding? Will anti-war Democrats rebel if they don't? It will take more than a quartet of hearings to answer those questions.

By Ben Pershing  |  April 8, 2008; 6:00 AM ET
Categories:  Hearing Watch , Iraq  
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