WASHINGTON – Democrats aren't scrambling to endorse recommendations of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, a tactic that largely leaves President Bush alone to salvage the war.
Instead, the party that will control Congress in January plans to focus on stepped-up oversight of Bush's plans for the war.
Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., who will take over the Armed Services Committee, says he'll hold three hearings on Bush's plans for Iraq and is prepared to subpoena documents to review past missteps.
Democrats also are eyeing ways to attach conditions to war funds that won't hurt troops and may even attract Republican support. Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., the next chairman of the Appropriations Committee, is considering a plan to amend the 2002 legislation that authorized the war by adding to it an exit strategy.
To gain bipartisan support, Byrd is expected to identify only broad conditions under which troops should come home rather than set firm dates or issue specific demands.
In the House, members are considering attaching conditions to the next war spending bill, expected to be at least $100 billion and perhaps as much as $160 billion.
"The Congress should not, nor do the American public expect us, to have $160 billion spent without a very substantial oversight and involvement by the Congress in how that money is spent," said incoming House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md.
The Iraq Study Group on Wednesday concluded the U.S. could be out of Iraq by early 2008 if it dramatically increased the number of troops advising Iraqi units and threatened to cut off aid to the Iraqi government unless it met certain milestones.
The panel also suggested asking Iran and Syria to pressure militias inside Iraq to stop sectarian killings.
Comprised of five Republicans and five Democrats — "gray beards" who advised past presidents or sat on the Supreme Court — the panel received a standing ovation after briefing senators.
But lawmakers from both parties have taken aim at the recommendations. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said the report's rejection of his idea to increase troop levels in Iraq runs counter to the advice of many uniformed officers. Likewise, Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., said he was reluctant to embrace the report because it doesn't recommend pulling out troops fast enough.
Murtha, who next month takes over the House panel that oversees defense spending, said he doesn't want to cut off funding for troops but will use the next war spending bill to press for more oversight.
Murtha said he wants to reinforce a ban on torture, bar the president from building permanent bases in Iraq and establish a congressional committee to investigate misuse of Iraq reconstruction spending.
"I think they'll pass and I think we'll put them in strong enough terms to send a signal" to the president that Congress opposes his Iraq policy, Murtha said.
Rep. Ike Skelton, D-Mo., who will chair the House Armed Services Committee, said he was most interested in conducting tough oversight hearings.
"They can do a great deal toward influencing administrations — plural — and future actions based upon what they have or have not done in the past," he said in an interview on C-SPAN's "Newsmakers" program.
The lack of immediate action on the Iraq Study Group's 79 recommendations underscores two realities in Washington.
First, Congress' power over the president's foreign policy is somewhat limited. Lawmakers control the war budget and some Democrats, including Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, have advocated cutting funding for it. But Democratic leaders have dismissed choking off military funds because it could hurt troops.
Also, Democrats — like Republicans — remain divided on exactly how to end the war, dimming hopes they would find consensus among themselves, let alone agree on a bipartisan plan.
Leaving a course of action up to Bush also allows Democrats to sidestep the political land mines associated with failure. Foreign policy experts agree any path taken to end the war is fraught with risk and that increased casualties are unavoidable.
Former Rep. Lee Hamilton, co-chair of the study group, told lawmakers this week he recognized their power was limited.
"The fact of the matter is that the report that we put before you must largely be implemented by the executive branch," Hamilton said. "You cannot dodge that fact."
However, Hamilton and co-chair James Baker III said Congress' ability to strike a bipartisan accord would influence the White House.
"This is an extraordinarily difficult problem. And unless the country comes together behind a unified approach, we're going to have a tough time dealing with it," said Baker, a Bush family friend and former secretary of state.
Levin said he is interested in putting Congress on the record in support of the panel's efforts, even if members cannot agree on the specifics. In particular, Levin said he envisions lawmakers rallying behind the notion that a political settlement in Iraq is necessary for success.
"I think it's very possible there could be an effort that generally supports the recommendations," he said. "Most of us do."