Monday, October 30, 2006

The Next Congress

First of five parts

Capitol Hill may soon swell from speed bump to stumbling block for an embattled President Bush, depending on which levers the voters pull in the congressional midterm elections a week from tomorrow.

Handicappers say Democrats have at least an outside chance of seizing control of both chambers of Congress for the first time in Mr. Bush’s presidency, which would present him with stark new challenges in the final two years of his term.

In this series, The Washington Times will look at how such a transfer of power on Capitol Hill will affect U.S. policy and politics on a range of issues — from taxes and immigration to health care and homeland security.

In foreign and security policy, the bloody frustrations of Iraq and the bitter partisan divide over the war on terrorism have defined House and Senate races across the country this fall.

With both Mr. Bush and the war in Iraq sagging badly in the polls, some suggest that the White House will face more resistance from Congress even if the Republicans hang on to their slim majorities.

“You’re going to have much more legislative oomph, and [Congress is] going to be much more active on a whole range of issues,” said Kurt Campbell, a top Pentagon and National Security Council aide in the Clinton administration and now director of international security programs at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).

“It won’t be, ‘Oh, that’s fine; you go about your business in Iran and just let us know how it’s going,’ or, ‘Tell us about North Korea when you’re done with the negotiations,’ ” Mr. Campbell said.

Getting tough

The congressional elections come at a bad time for an administration confronting multiple overseas crises — with Iraq, Iran and North Korea topping the list — in addition to the long-term struggle against Islamic terrorist groups, said Richard Haass.

“I can’t think of another time when an administration was being hit simultaneously with so many difficult, yet largely discrete, challenges,” said the top State Department policy adviser in Mr. Bush’s first term and now president of the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations.

On some issues, though, the election is not expected to bring a major shift in foreign policy.

Both parties have largely supported the president’s civilian nuclear pact with India, although Congress has yet to formally approve the deal. Leading Democrats also largely back the administration’s strongly pro-Israel tilt, with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Rep. Tom Lantos, ranking Democrat on the House International Relations Committee, seen as particularly strong supporters of the Jewish state.

But congressional Democrats have vowed to end what they see as a rubber-stamp Congress under Republican leadership. They say Congress has barely challenged Mr. Bush on such momentous issues as the decision to invade Iraq, the campaign to contain North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, new administration policies on intelligence gathering and the handling of detainees, and the overall management of the war on terrorism.

Sen. Carl Levin, the Michigan Democrat in line to take over the Senate Armed Services Committee if his party wins a majority in the chamber, said major Democratic gains next week almost certainly would force the Bush administration to change tactics in Iraq and elsewhere.

Democratic control of even one chamber of Congress would have a “huge motivating force to change course,” Mr. Levin said.

Iraq turnaround

Republicans warn that the elevation of anti-war liberal Democrats such as Mr. Levin and Mrs. Pelosi of California to leadership positions in Congress is exactly the wrong message to be sending in the most trying days of the global fight against terrorism. A Democratic majority, they say, could cripple the country’s ability to take the fight to enemies overseas.

“I think Americans would prefer our generals to be fighting terrorists as opposed to fighting subpoenas,” Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman said.

In addition to bigger roles for Mrs. Pelosi and Mr. Levin, the congressional races could thrust a number of other Democrats into powerful foreign policy posts.

Rep. John P. Murtha, Pennsylvania Democrat and the former Marine who has pushed for an immediate withdrawal from Iraq, is in line to take over the defense subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee — the panel that introduces all bills to fund the Iraq war. Mr. Murtha also has said he might consider running for House majority leader if the Democrats win.

Rep. Ike Skelton, Missouri Democrat and a harsh critic of the Pentagon’s management of postwar Iraq, likely would be Mr. Levin’s counterpart as new chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee likely would be headed by Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., Delaware Democrat and another critic of the Iraq war who is pushing a plan for three separate federations with a central government in Baghdad.

Talking back

Mr. Campbell said a more assertive Congress controlled by the Democrats would be a particular headache for the Bush administration, which, he said, has grown used to having a free hand on foreign policy in the post-September 11 world.

“The defining vision of the executive branch has been, ‘We’re No. 1 and you don’t matter,’ ” he said.

But “whoever comes to power, whether it’s Republicans or Democrats, there’s going to be a new sheriff in town in February and they’re not going to take it from the administration and they’re going to be much more aggressive about their prerogatives.”

At a Council on Foreign Relations briefing earlier this month, Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, Connecticut Democrat, acknowledged that, “obviously the temptation to some degree would be recrimination in light of how Democrats have been treated over the last number of years by the Republican majority.”

Mr. Dodd added it was his “fervent hope” that Democrats could ignore the temptation “and try and forge some bipartisanship.”

But political forecasters say, barring an unanticipated landslide next week, the new Congress once again will be almost evenly divided between the two major parties. Even if they take control of one or both chambers of Congress, Democrats almost certainly will not have the majorities they need to force through bills that Mr. Bush and the Republicans oppose.

And aside from not liking the administration’s line on Iraq, the Middle East, North Korea and other issues, it’s not clear the Democrats can unite around a single policy of their own.

The House Out of Iraq Caucus, made up of 78 Democrats, backs Mr. Murtha’s call for a quick withdrawal of U.S. forces and favors using Congress’ power of the purse to force the administration to act. But Mr. Levin and other influential Democrats in the Senate have criticized that idea.

When Democratic Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts and Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin introduced an amendment in June to withdraw virtually all U.S. troops from Iraq by July 1, 2007, the Senate rejected the idea on an 86-13 vote.

Checking up

But a Democratic House or Senate could make life extremely uncomfortable for the administration in another way — oversight.

Committee and subcommittee chairmen largely set the agenda for their panels, pick the hearing topics and have the biggest say on how to deploy staff and investigators.

The Republican-dominated Congress, Democrats complain, devoted far more time to the U.N. oil-for-food scandal in the past four years than they have to the administration’s handling of the war on terrorism. Democratic lawmakers say they want to question officials on topics ranging from the North Korea nuclear negotiations to the awarding of Iraq contracts to U.S. firms such as Halliburton.

Democrats also vow to probe the administration’s use of intelligence in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq in March 2003 and the strains on the U.S. military caused by the war and its aftermath.

Mr. Skelton, asked what his plans would be for the Armed Services Committee, replied succinctly: “Oversight, oversight, oversight.”

In a new analysis, two congressional scholars, Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute and Thomas E. Mann of the Brookings Institution, say the Democratic charges have merit. In a lengthy study to be published in the journal Foreign Affairs, the two argue that “Congress’ oversight of the executive branch on foreign and national security policy has virtually collapsed” over the past six years.

For example, in 2003 and 2004, the Senate Armed Services Committee held no hearings on the military campaign in Afghanistan, despite a resurgence of violence by fundamentalist Taliban insurgents.

Critics within

Mr. Campbell noted that even Republicans on Capitol Hill — especially in the Senate — have become more outspoken in their criticism of Mr. Bush in recent days, reflecting polls showing the president and the Iraq war are unpopular and the fact that Mr. Bush has only two years left in office.

Even if the Republicans retain control of Congress, Mr. Bush is unlikely to have the same kind of support from his own party that he enjoyed in past years.

Republican Sens. John W. Warner of Virginia and Chuck Hagel of Nebraska have questioned administration claims of progress in Iraq. Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican and a front-runner in the race to succeed Mr. Bush, led congressional opposition to the administration’s original plans on the handling of suspected terrorists in U.S. custody.

Mr. McCain is one of the few lawmakers in either party pushing the administration to send tens of thousands of new troops to Iraq to crush the insurgency.

But he admits that his is “clearly a minority view” with little chance of support in the next Congress.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, told the Associated Press in an interview last week , “We’re on the verge of chaos [in Iraq], and the current plan is not working.”

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Richard G. Lugar, Indiana Republican, recently broke with Mr. Bush by calling for direct U.S. talks with North Korea.

The White House has largely dismissed speculation on how the election could affect foreign policy as so much “chin-pulling,” in the words of spokesman Tony Snow. Mr. Bush last week accused his critics of “dancing in the end zone when they haven’t scored a touchdown.”

But former President George Bush, who dealt with Democratic majorities in both the House and Senate throughout his four-year term, recently admitted at a Republican fundraiser in Philadelphia, ‘I would hate to think what my son’s life would be like” if the Democrats regained control of Congress.

The much-anticipated report being prepared by an independent commission headed by former Secretary of State James A. Baker III could alter the landscape before the 110th Congress is seated next year. Mr. Baker’s panel, whose co-chairman is former Democratic Rep. Lee H. Hamilton of Indiana, is reportedly ready to recommend a major course change in Iraq and the Middle East.

And Mr. Haass of the Council on Foreign Relations said Democratic gains in Congress likely will have far less effect on foreign policy than the hard facts presented by such crises as North Korea’s recent nuclear test and the rising sectarian violence in Iraq.

“The administration is going to be under intense pressure to adjust its policies no matter how the vote goes,” he said. “Right now, the facts on the ground are driving things far more than what’s happening in Washington.”

Part II

Democrats wait in the wings with subpoenas

Part III

Specter of tax man haunts Democrats

Part IV

Bush may find an ally on immigration

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