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Bush, Democrats Plan For Iraq Showdown

By Reid Wilson

As shadows cast beneath the Capitol dome lengthen, as summer draws to a close, official Washington is preparing for what is shaping up to be the nastiest fight in years. On both sides of Pennsylvania Avenue, Republicans and Democrats are sharpening their swords, preparing for what may be President Bush's final chance to regain the upper hand in the debate over Iraq - and Democrats' best chance to reverse course in a war gone terribly awry.

Congress' position on the war in Iraq has changed markedly since both houses authorized the use of force, by wide margins, more than four years ago. Then, Republicans were joined by huge numbers of Democrats voting with the president. Today, if just a few Republicans change their minds, majorities substantial enough to force an end to the war could bring about a tipping point. It is those few members of the GOP, straddling the middle, to whom both parties will target their arguments in the coming week.

In advance of the long-anticipated White House report on the status of the war, Congressional Democrats have scheduled a number of hearings across Capitol Hill to highlight issues on which they believe they hold the upper hand. Before the release of the report, authored by Gen. David Petraeus, the top military official in Iraq, and Ambassador Ryan Crocker, Democrats plan to use the hearings to drive coverage and frame the debate.

The new majority will waste no time, either. Today, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee will hold a hearing on a recent report by the Government Accountability Office, drafts of which were leaked to the media last week showing a grim situation in Iraq. The GAO concluded that 13 of the 18 "benchmarks" set out for the Iraqi government to meet have not been achieved, though the report received significant push-back from the Pentagon and the White House.

The committee hearing could turn into an anti-war rally, as three presidential candidates - Senators Joe Biden, who chairs the committee, Chris Dodd and Barack Obama - will be present, as well as top war opponents Barbara Boxer, John Kerry, Russ Feingold and Jim Webb. On the Republican side, ranking member Richard Lugar called for a change of course in Iraq in June, while Chuck Hagel has long been an opponent of the war strategy. The Senate Armed Services Committee will hold a hearing on the report on Friday.

On Wednesday, both the House Armed Services and Foreign Affairs Committees hold hearings on the GAO report, offering reporters a new set of war opponents from whom to get story material. Both hearings will likely lead to contentious exchanges between liberals like Robert Wexler, Lynn Woolsey and Sheila Jackson Lee, and conservatives like Tom Tancredo, also a presidential candidate, Mike Pence and Bob Inglis, all of the Foreign Affairs Committee.

The Armed Services Committee, on the other hand, is packed with ten freshman Democrats elected on an anti-war wave, including Patrick Murphy, the only Iraq war veteran in Congress, and Joe Sestak, a retired Navy vice admiral.

By Thursday, it is Marine General James Jones' turn in the hot seat. The general will report to the House and Senate Armed Services Committees on the training and capabilities of the Iraqi security forces. Jones is reporting at the request of Congress as a comparison with the administration's views.

Also Thrusday, House Armed Services and Foreign Affairs Committee holds a joint hearing titled, "Beyond the September Reports: What's next for Iraq?" The same day, the Senate Intelligence Committee holds a closed hearing on a new National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq, which, when leaked two weeks ago, is said to have concluded that the government in Iraq "will become more precarious over the next six to twelve months" and that "Iraqi political leaders remain unable to govern effectively."

A week of headlines showing Democrats denouncing the war seems designed to move public opinion their way in advance of the Petraeus-Crocker report. That document will likely provide the Administration's decidedly more optimistic view of the situation. Petraeus and Crocker will be subjected to a six-hour grilling before a joint House committee hearing Monday and two appearances before the Senate committees Tuesday.

Sixteen blocks away from the Capitol, President Bush is doing his best to smooth the way for the report's release. On his way to Australia yesterday, Bush made an unannounced six-hour visit to a major air base in al Anbar province, which the White House has pointed to recently as one sign of Iraqi success.

The Administration denied the trip was a publicity stunt, but National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley admitted that the visit serves a purpose. "The idea for this visit arose about five or six weeks ago," he told reporters aboard Air Force One. "We began thinking about next week and the focus on the Petraeus and Crocker testimony."

After spending last week meeting with the Joint Chiefs of Staff and other advisers on the war, White House officials said Bush wanted to meet not just with Petraeus, Crocker and other top commanders, but with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Also making the trip were retired General Douglas Lute, Hadley's deputy for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and senior White House counselor Ed Gillespie.

Gillespie said that the trip may not affect the debate in Congress on the war's progress, but that so many members making their own trips would instruct them more. "There is no substitute for that kind of first-hand experience and seeing directly for yourself and talking directly to not only national leaders but provincial leaders," Gillespie told the White House pool reporter.

Bush, when he returns to Washington after the Asian Pacific Economic Conference in Australia, will likely describe his own visit as instructive of what he sees as progress in Iraq. Al Anbar, which only months ago was virtually lawless and in control of terrorist organizations, is now one of the few success stories to which the Administration can point.

The battle for media attention is being heavily waged, beginning in earnest with Bush's trip yesterday. But with Congress back in session, the pendulum will swing to Capitol Hill. The few Republicans it would take to reach a tipping point on the war will likely be convinced, one way or another, in the next week.

The president has no choice but to rely on his commander and his ambassador to ensure the pendulum doesn't swing too far out of his control.

Reid Wilson, an associate editor and writer for RealClearPolitics, formerly covered polls and polling for The Hotline, National Journal’s daily briefing on politics. Wilson’s work has appeared in National Journal, Hotline OnCall and the Arizona Capitol Times. He can be reached at reid@realclearpolitics.com

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