WASHINGTON – The Democrats captured the House and Senate last month largely by promising better strategies for ending the war in Iraq and shoring up U.S. defenses at home.
Now comes the hard part: making it happen.
As Congress prepares to turn over the reins of power on Jan. 4, a number of things stand in the Democrats' way, including the very important fact that President Bush, not Congress, takes the constitutional lead role in foreign policy and military decisions. Also, slim majorities in the House and especially the Senate will force Democrats to craft legislation that garners enough support from Republicans to pass.
Among the campaign pledges that won the day for the Democrats in November:
• Speeding the return home of U.S. troops while bringing more stability to Iraq;
• Implementing the full recommendations of the Sept. 11 commission report;
• Preventing nuclear weapons proliferation in countries like Iran and North Korea;
• Bringing new accountability to the government's national security efforts.
Editor's Note: This is the sixth in a multi-part series on legislative and ethics priorities for Democrats when they take over the congressional majority in January 2007.
In the midst of it all, Iraq's security situation continues to worsen, threatening the stability of the Middle East; Iraq's neighbor, Iran, continues to seek nuclear weapons capabilities along with North Korea; and in the five years since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, homeland security challenges continue to linger in the travel, shipping, immigration, infrastructure and utility sectors.
On top of it all, last week's emergency brain surgery on Sen. Tim Johnson put in jeopardy Democrats' tenuous 51-49 majority in the Senate and cast a shadow on their entire legislative agenda as unofficial Washington pondered the possibility of a changeover in the majority leader's seat even before Democrats take the reins.
A Plan for Iraq
Democrats spent the months leading up to Election Day calling for a change in course in Iraq, troop withdrawals and better training and equipping of troops in combat zones. But they have repeatedly said they have no intentions of using their most blunt policy tool when it comes to Iraq: slicing money out of the defense budget to force administration policy changes.
The Democratic victory on Nov. 7 forced Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's resignation the next day. Former CIA Director Robert Gates was quickly confirmed in early December and on Monday took the oath of office.
The appointment has not quieted the Iraq debate.
"Democrats and the blue-ribbon Iraq Study Group have given the president a roadmap for change. The president is commander in chief, and only he can make the changes in Iraq our national security demands. The ball is in his court, and he must act soon," said incoming Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., after Gates' swearing-in.
On Dec. 6, the Iraq Study Group, of which Gates was formerly a member, issued a report on Iraq that quickly became a jumping off point for Democrats to continue their assault on President Bush. Although lawmakers have yet to coalesce around specific suggestions in the 79-point recommendations, they are not holding back on voicing their impatience for change.
Michigan Sen. Carl Levin, who will take over as Armed Services Committee chairman in January, said the most important part of the ISG report is the call for a political solution in Iraq, not a military one.
"There's not consensus among a lot of things relative to Iraq. ... But there is a consensus, or near consensus, on one key, fundamental point: Unless the Iraqi leaders work out a political agreement that the violence is going to continue, and Iraq is going to continue to descend towards civil war," Levin told reporters on Capitol Hill last week.
Levin criticized the president for what he calls a "stay the course" mentality that leaves it up to the Iraqi government to decide when is the best time for U.S. troops to leave. He said the president needs to tell the Iraqis as soon as possible that hard deadlines must be met. Levin said he favors a withdrawal within four to six months.
Doing so would prompt faster action by Iraqis to secure their country through political means, Levin said. The same day, the senator told a private audience: "Nothing will get the attention of the Iraqi leaders like the prospect of some American troops leaving Iraq."
The president was not expected to reveal any new changes in his Iraq policy until a speech in January, but last week administration officials suggested Bush may propose as many as 20,000 to 40,000 more U.S. troops to be added to the Iraq battlefield.
Reid told ABC's "This Week" on Sunday that he would support beefing up the number of U.S. troops as long as it was accompanied by a plan to remove American combat forces by early 2008.
"If it's for a surge, that is, for two or three months and it's part of a program to get us out of there as indicated by this time next year, then, sure, I'll go along with it," Reid said.
But Rep. Ike Skelton, D-Mo., the next chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said he doesn't like what he's hearing.
"Everything I've heard and everything I know to be true leads me to believe that this increase at best won't change a thing, and at worst could exacerbate the situation even further," Skelton said. "The Iraqis need to understand that responsibility for the future of that country is theirs. Beginning the redeployment of some number of American forces would send that message."
Many Democrats also have embraced other parts of the Iraq Study Group report, including opening limited talks with Iran and Syria to help stem Iraq violence could help, a position to which the president is staunchly opposed. In November, top Democrats also called on the president to appoint a so-called special envoy to Iraq who would handle the management of brokering a political settlement there.
Not all Democrats are in line with the group's proposals. Rep. Jim Marshall, D-Ga., for instance told FOX News that the 2008 timeframe for bringing troops home might be "like telling a fifth grader they've got to take their GEDs and pass them by the end of next year or they're going to be left stranded."
Defending the Homeland
Besides Iraq, Democrats have promised to adopt the full recommendations of the Sept. 11 commission, first released in the summer of 2004. While several recommendations were adopted during the 109th Congress — including the creation of the new director of national intelligence, a position filled by John Negroponte in April 2005 — many recommendations have been left dormant.
For an idea of what remains to be done regarding the recommendations, House Speaker-elect Nancy Pelosi spokesman Drew Hammill pointed to the 2005 report card on the Sept. 11 commission put out by former commission members.
"There were a lot of Ds and F's," Hammill said, referring to grades the commissioners gave Congress and the administration for following up on their recommendations. Out of 41 recommendations, the commission issued 12 Ds and five Fs, plus two "incomplete" grades on issues like first-responder radio improvements, airline passenger screening and breaking down bureaucratic barriers preventing the sharing of intelligence and information.
Reports surfaced in November that Democrats might push back one recommendation: putting budget and oversight authority for intelligence activities under one congressional committee. Right now, operational oversight is taken care of by House and Senate intelligence committees, but budgeting is taken care of in the appropriations and defense panels.
Seeking to head off the critics, Pelosi told reporters on Friday she would push for a new panel — the Select Intelligence Oversight Panel — that would be housed in the House Appropriations Committee. It would be comprised of members of the House Intelligence Committee.
"Its purpose is to protect the American people with the best possible intelligence," Pelosi said Thursday of her plan. "And it is to bring the House Intelligence Committee and the authorizing committee closer together."
Other Security Priorities
While homeland security is a major focus, the Democrats also made campaign promises in the international arena.
Democrats' "New Direction for America" statement pledged to destroy Al Qaeda leader Usama bin Laden and terrorist networks; to "rebuild a state-of-the-art military capable of projecting power wherever necessary"; to redouble efforts to stop nuclear weapons development in Iraq and North Korea and by 2010, secure loose nuclear materials wanted by terrorists.
Hammill told FOXNews.com that some of the foreign relations issues — such as the loose nuclear weapons materials — could be dealt with in the legislation to implement the Sept. 11 commission recommendations.
But some of Democrats' international goals will be difficult to accomplish, said Ted Galen Carpenter, vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the libertarian-minded CATO Institute.
"The underlying reality is that the Bush administration — not Congress — is going to be in charge of foreign policy until Jan. 20, 2009," Carpenter said. And Democrats likely will have the most success by putting public pressure the administration.
Investigations as Foreign Policy
The new Congress' greatest power, Carpenter said, might be that of heading investigations, which Democrats can do without having the support legislation would need, like winning a majority of members of the House or a filibuster-proof support of 60 votes in the Senate.
"They can pretty well do whatever they want," Carpenter said of any investigations Democrats may pursue.
Democrats have signaled that investigations likely will focus on spending in Iraq, including a number of competition-free contracts early in the Iraq rebuilding effort. The use of faulty intelligence to support the argument for a pre-emptive strike against Iraq also remains a sore subject for Democrats. The National Security Agency's program to monitor suspected terrorist networks communicating inside and outside the United States also continues to draw scrutiny.
"The reality is — for good or for ill — Bush administration appointees should keep large blocks of their calendar open to testify on Capitol Hill," Carpenter said. "There will be a lot of investigations ... and some of that is healthy."