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Congress Will Shift Focus to Defense Bill, Iraq

Public angst about Iraq (search) will reverberate in Congress in the weeks ahead as lawmakers start shaping a defense spending blueprint and debate President Bush's Iraq policies.

Hurricane Katrina (search) has topped the agenda since the House and Senate returned to Washington last week. But debate over the costly war — complicated by the $62 billion approved so far for the hurricane-ravaged Gulf Coast — percolates just below the surface.

"Katrina did not declare a truce on Iraq," Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said.

Lawmakers will resume work soon on must-pass defense legislation, and Iraqi citizens will vote on a constitution. Both are certain to intensify the war rhetoric on Capitol Hill.

At the same time, Republicans and Democrats alike will be all but forced to address their constituents' unease about the progress in Iraq, about which they heard earfuls during their summer recess. Many lawmakers face re-election next year, and their support for the Iraq war could dwindle if the war drags on into 2006.

"They want us to be careful, manage our money well and get our troops home as soon as we possibly can," Sen. Jeff Sessions (search), R-Ala., said of voters' attitudes toward Iraq.

"Patience in the Congress is running thin — thinner," Rep. Mark Udall, D-Colo., said. "Certainly, privately, there are a lot more conversations occurring across party lines about Iraq."

While lawmakers were in their districts last month, U.S. combat deaths spiked and support for the president's Iraq policies fell. Cindy Sheehan (search), the California mother of a soldier killed in Iraq, sparked anti-war protests when she set up camp outside Bush's Texas ranch and demanded to speak with him.

It appeared that Iraq — and increasing public discomfort about it — would consume lawmakers this fall. Hurricane Katrina forced lawmakers to focus on this devastating natural disaster, but Iraq is likely to take center stage soon.

Lawmakers have expressed concern about the U.S. ability to handle the war while rebuilding the ravaged Gulf Coast and aiding storm victims, though they say the nation has no choice but tend to both.

"It's not a question of whether we can. We're gonna do it and we will do it," Sen. John Warner, R-Va., said.

Warner, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, plans to review the role of the National Guard in the hurricane response. He also wants Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld to testify on the war, although a date has not been set.

Congress also will have to deal with Bush's Iraq policies as lawmakers complete legislation setting defense spending for the budget year that begins Oct. 1.

Meanwhile, senators from both parties are urging Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., to call up another defense measure that authorizes pay raises and expanded benefits for troops. The legislation, which the House already approved, is stalled in the Senate because of Republican-sponsored, White House-opposed amendments that would regulate detainees in the war on terror.

Public opinion polls show fewer than four in 10 Americans approve of the Bush administration's handling of the war. More than two dozen House and Senate members indicated in interviews that their constituents are increasingly unsettled about the direction and pace of the war.

The lawmakers say the discontent comes from Democrats, Republicans and independents who want to know when U.S. troops will return.

"Is there some frustration in that this has lasted now significantly longer than people thought it would at the onset? Yes, that frustration is there," said Rep. Joe Schwarz, R-Mich.

"People believe we have to finish the job. But certainly they're war-weary, they're battle-weary," Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., added.

"A lot of them frankly want the president to find a way to get us out of there," Rep. Silvestre Reyes, D-Texas, said.

A few Republicans said such frustration is not apparent in their communities.

"It's like the folks of District 11 don't get polled," said Rep. Mike Conaway, whose district is in the president's home state of Texas.

Still, dissatisfaction persists elsewhere. Because of it, some lawmakers anticipate Congress will start cutting back spending for the war early next year, after Iraq holds elections in December.

"The public has turned against this war," said Rep. John Murtha of Pennsylvania, the top Democrat on the House Appropriations defense subcommittee. "And when the public turns against the war, Congress reacts to that."