WASHINGTON – House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's visit to Iraq is a clear sign the newly empowered Democratic Congress is not going to abide by the notion that foreign policy is the sole province of the White House.
While President Bush met with military leaders in the Oval Office Friday, she and anti-war Rep. Jack Murtha turned up in Baghdad.
The timing of the trip, from the Bush administration's point of view, couldn't have been worse. It came just days after the president asked Congress in his State of the Union address to give his revised Iraq strategy a chance to work.
It also provided for dueling photo ops: Bush at the White House with his commanders and Pelosi and her congressional delegation in the heavily fortified Green Zone with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. The lawmakers also were to visit U.S. troops on what they billed as a fact-finding mission.
While the administration did not take issue with the visit by Pelosi and Murtha, Bush on Friday had a message for congressional opponents who want to stop his plan to increase U.S. troop strength in Iraq. "I'm the decision-maker" on the war effort, he said.
An increasingly assertive Congress is signaling that it, too, wants a part in those decisions.
"They see blood is in the water," said Fred Greenstein, professor emeritus of politics at Princeton University.
"It's sort of the idealized view: that politics stops at the water's edge and the president is commander in chief and the chief diplomat. But members of Congress see a president who is in his low 30s in approval, they need to be re-elected and they know what their constituents are for," Greenstein said.
Bush's approval on handling Iraq was at 32 percent in a mid-January AP-AOL News poll.
Pelosi has been a sharp critic of the administration's conduct of the war and has led a drive in Congress against his decision to send 21,500 more troops.
"We come out of the meeting with a greater understanding of the others' point of view," Pelosi, D-Calif., said in brief remarks after the session with the Iraqi prime minister.
Many in Congress have accused al-Maliki of foot-dragging and have challenged his capability to quell the sectarian violence tearing apart his country.
Murtha, D-Pa., who chairs the Appropriations subcommittee for defense, will have a big say in future spending decisions on Iraq. A onetime hawk on military issues, Murtha for more than a year has been one the most outspoken war critics.
A key piece of Bush's new Iraq strategy is increasing reconstruction efforts, with the U.S. pledging an additional $1.2 billion. Also, Bush is expected to send Congress next month a Pentagon request for about $100 billion more for Iraq and Afghanistan.
While Congress has constitutional pursestrings control over war spending, most lawmakers seem hesitant to support a cutoff of funds that might endanger troops now in Iraq.
Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney say they will not budge from sending more U.S. troops to Iraq no matter how much Congress opposes the plan. The administration argues the money for the additional troops already has been appropriated.
Even if the Pelosi trip visit vexed the White House, her visit — to a U.S. ally — was not challenged. After all, Dennis Hastert, the former Republican speaker, visited Iraq, as have many lawmakers, both war supporters and critics.
"We're glad the speaker will have a chance to hear firsthand from our troops on the ground as well as the Iraqi government," said Gordon Johndroe, a White House national security spokesman.
"When we're interacting with foreign governments, there is a need for the United States to provide a consistent message to those governments," said P.J. Crowley, a military and national security aide in the Clinton administration. "But in the context of Iraq, I see this trip as positive."
"A core element of our strategy is going to involve the performance of the Iraqi government. Congress has to be in a position of assessing the U.S. strategy and finding appropriate ways to support it, and also performing its oversight role," said Crowley, now with the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank.