WASHINGTON – Congress returned to work Tuesday with a full plate of issues facing it, not the least of which is the Iraq war and how to best to shape U.S. policy toward the war-torn country.
The debate is expected to crescendo next week when the top U.S. officials in Iraq will deliver their congressionally mandated report on Iraqi political and military progress. The reports, from Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker, are expected to be given Sept. 10 and 11, under the emotional backdrop of the sixth anniversary since the terror attacks on New York and Washington, D.C.
Congress also faces decisions on a children's health bill, overall spending solutions, mortgage and credit problems, and ongoing investigations into the Justice Department are expected to continue.
The first of several hearings on Iraq progress is set to begin Tuesday, and other hearings related to intelligence and the military also are being held. The Senate Foreign Relations committee will hold a hearing on the Government Accountability Office's unfavorable report to Iraqi political reconciliation.
The Senate Armed Services Committee then will hold a closed-door hearing on detainee treatment. And the Senate is expected to begin consideration of the Veterans Affairs spending bill, a hot-button issue after reports surfaced earlier this year of Iraq war veterans were returning home to find sub-standard medical treatment.
The rhetoric on Iraq has been turned up in recent days from the White House, too. Bracing itself against possible Democratic backlash, the president has set out in several speeches to say his troop surge plan to send 30,000 more troops into Iraq is working, and could be necessary into the future. While the surge cannot last indefinitely, it is expected the administration plans to maintain troop levels into the spring.
And in a surprise visit to Iraq on Monday, Bush called on lawmakers to listen to his top deputies before making up their minds on Iraq. He has said withdrawal now would be disastrous.
"I urge members of both parties in Congress to listen to what they have to say," Bush said. "We shouldn't jump to conclusions until the general and the ambassador report."
While Democrats have been pushing for troop withdrawals from Iraq, some have conceded that the president's plan has brought some successes. Nevertheless, Democrats likely will point to new reports showing military success as evidence of failed political progress in Iraq.
Those clashing views could come to the House and Senate floors in September in debates over the Pentagon's budget or a separate White House request for $147 billion in emergency spending for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Some Democrats insist on a definite withdrawal date, possibly by next spring. Others are searching for more modest steps that would not face a presidential veto.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said in a statement that he remained "absolutely committed to changing course in Iraq and bringing our troops home."
Many Republicans said through spring and summer that they wanted to hold off until September and the Petraeus report before acting to change policy.
"Now that time has come," Reid said, adding he is "willing and ready to help my Republican colleagues keep their word" by looking for bipartisan solutions to Iraq.
The first order of Senate business will be a vote on former Rep. Jim Nussle, R-Iowa, to take over as White House budget director. The Senate could take up the vote as early as Tuesday, although it might be facing a snag.
Nussle's nomination has been caught up in Democratic anger over the president's threat to veto most of the spending bills Congress is advancing for the new fiscal year starting Oct. 1. Bush claims they spend too much.
Spending has been a major point of contention this year between the White House and Capitol Hill. Bush has issued an increasing number of veto threats over what he says is excessive spending.
The House has passed its appropriations bills but the Senate has completed only one. Up first in the Senate are budgets for veterans, foreign aid and transportation programs.
The House Financial Services Committee will hold a hearing Wednesday on the subprime mortgage crisis and options for preventing a flood of homeowner foreclosures.
Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said he was heartened by Bush's support last Friday for several Democratic-backed steps to help homeowners.
Since Bush adviser Karl Rove left and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales announced his resignation, "many of us have been wondering, is the president about to change course, to move to the middle of the road, to work with Democrats," Schumer said. "This is the first really concrete action we have seen where the president is indeed moving to the middle."
Still, there are many issues to fight about.
Democrats have been criticized by many of their supporters for letting Bush push them last month into temporarily expanding the government's ability to eavesdrop on suspected terrorists without warrants. That authority expires in six months. When it comes up for renewal, Democrats want to narrow the circumstances in which spy agencies can skip getting warrants from a special court.
House and Senate negotiators also hope to develop a final version of legislation that would add millions of children to a popular health insurance program. The White House threatened to veto both chambers' bills, which include big tax increases on tobacco products to pay for spending increases the White House says are unacceptable.
House-Senate negotiations will also resume on proposals to improve drug safety, reduce college costs and make the country more energy independent.
A Senate bill, facing a veto threat, calls for a 40 percent increase in average auto mileage to 35 miles per gallon by 2020. The House version doesn't address automobile fuel economy, but would require electric utilities to produce at least 15 percent of their power from renewable energy sources, an idea left out of the Senate version.
House hearings are also scheduled on the Utah mine disaster and the Minnesota bridge collapse.
The Senate will look slightly different in September. South Dakota Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson will be back at work nine months after suffering a life-threatening brain hemorrhage. Also, Sen. Larry Craig — whose guilty plea related to an airport bathroom incident ended in his resignation this past weekend — will be leaving at the end of the month.
The House also is scheduled on Tuesday to swear in its newest member, Laura Richardson, a Democrat. She will fill California's 37th District seat, which has been open since Rep. Juanita Millender-McDonald died from cancer earlier this year.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.