Democrats in charge of national security in Congress plan to showcase the Iraq war as their leading issue in 2007, conducting a series of hearings and promoting legislation that would force President Bush to start bringing home troops next year.
But Democrats at this point lack a consensus on Iraq. Incoming Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, Michigan Democrat, has begun a hunt for enough Senate votes to pass a nonbinding resolution demanding that President Bush set a timetable for troop withdrawal. He says that there were 40 such votes last year and that perhaps he can find 51 in 2007.
In the House, Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the California Democrat likely to become the speaker, advocates an immediate troop pullout. But congressional aides say such a resolution likely would be defeated in a floor vote.
The only sure way for Congress to end the war is to cut off funds in the defense appropriations bill. But aides said that action would be vulnerable to Republican attack and is unlikely.
Democrats have a consensus on one point: They know that the bogged-down Iraq war won them Congress and that anti-war constituents expect congressional follow-through.
"In broad terms, the consequences of a Democratic Congress are pretty easy to define," said Loren B. Thompson, a military analyst at the pro-defense Lexington Institute. "First of all, they are going to be greatly reducing our presence in Iraq and will figure out some way to make the White House do that."
Mr. Thompson said Democrats can make things rough on Mr. Bush on other issues, such as executive and judicial nominations, as a way to force him to accept an Iraq timetable -- something he rejected as recently as Monday.
Congressional staffers said the Democrats' final strategy will rest partly on the recommendations next month of the Iraq Study Group, a bipartisan group of former U.S. officials. The panel has stature: It is led by James A. Baker III, former secretary of state, and former Rep. Lee H. Hamilton, who was co-chairman of the September 11 commission. If the group recommends some type of American withdrawal, it would provide cover for Democrats to put the plan into legislation.
There is a catch.
"Democrats have to think about how everything they do now will be used against them in 2008," Mr. Thompson said. "If they force a reduction in troops, and there is a meltdown in the Iraq security situation, of course they'll be blamed."
"Most Democrats share the view that we should pressure the White House to commence the phased redeployment of U.S. troops from Iraq in four to six months," Mr. Levin said. "And thereby to make it clear to the Iraqis that our presence is not open-ended."
Rep. C.W. Bill Young, Florida Republican and chairman of the House Appropriations defense subcommittee, said he doubts a Levin-style amendment would pass the House.
"I do know most of the Republican members would likely oppose that, and I know a sizable number of Democrats who indicated during their campaigns that that was not the right course of action," he said.
The new majority also will ramp up the number of oversight hearings into a number of Bush defense policies, such as the detainee operation at Guantanamo Bay, reconstruction in Iraq, the readiness of stateside combat units and how Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld planned for the war. There have been a series of hearings on those issues the past four years, but not enough for Democrats.
"There has been inadequate oversight in this Republican Congress," Mr. Levin said this week. "They have too often been a rubber stamp for administration policies and too often been unwilling to probe the inadequacies, the shortfalls and the failures of administration practices and policies."
Republicans will hand the chairman's gavel of the armed services committees and defense appropriations subcommittees to generally pro-defense Democrats. Congressional staffers predict that neither the weapons programs nor the defense budget overall will be slashed.
But Mr. Thompson said Democrats will try to change some policies, including policies on procurement of the Army's future battlefield network of vehicles and aircraft. He also expects a push to increase the size of the Army, which has a half-million active soldiers.