WASHINGTON – Iraq war policy returns to the forefront this week as President Bush sends his top deputies in Baghdad to testify on Capitol Hill.
In hearings in both the Senate and House, Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker likely will lay the groundwork for the administration's push for a $100 billion check from Congress to pay for operations through September while trying to convince Democrats that the Pentagon should put a temporary hold on further troop withdrawals.
But even as the two prepare their testimony for hearings on Tuesday and Wednesday, Democratic leaders in Congress say they want to cut war spending, reduce the burden on U.S. forces in Iraq and increase the military focus on Afghanistan.
"We must shift to what General Petraeus has termed a posture of strategic overwatch so that we create additional incentives for the Iraqis to embrace political accommodation which will allow us to reduce U.S. troop levels substantially and devote more of our resources to a number of other important national security challenges," wrote House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid a letter also signed by House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer and Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin.
Petraeus and Crocker's report will describe Iraq's political and military progress since their last report to Congress in September. That testimony aimed to show that the surge announced by Bush in January 2007 was providing the stability for the Iraqi government to make political progress.
Bush has spent the past month making public appeals for a continued fight in Iraq, saying the surge has enabled Iraqis to "reclaim and restart political and economic life."
But Democrats continue to call for a withdrawal, with Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., saying in Saturday's Democratic Party radio address that the surge has failed.
"The purpose of the surge was to bring violence in Iraq down so that its leaders could come together politically," said Biden, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "Violence has come down, but the Iraqis have not come together. ... There is little evidence the Iraqis will settle their differences peacefully any time soon."
Democrats and the Bush administration have reached common ground over some spending priorities, including an increasing presence in Kabul.
Shortly after Petraeus and Crocker's last testimony, Bush announced he would remove some of the additional 30,000 troops — which brought the number of U.S. forces to more than 160,000 — that had been put in Iraq over the spring and summer.
The goal of the current drawdown is to be completed by July, and settle at slightly above pre-surge levels, at about 140,000 troops. After this week's hearings, Bush also plans to announce that combat tours will be lowered from 15-month tours to 12 months.
Democrats have signaled that they don't expect to be able to force further troop withdrawals, something they have tried and failed to do in dozens of votes since taking the majority in Congress in January 2007.
"I expect most of our troops to still be there" for the rest of the year, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin told reporters Friday. He added that "until there's either a big enough majority in the Senate or a change in the president's (approach), I don’t see a significant improvement ... in Iraq."
Levin, D-Mich., is proposing a deadline and change of mission in Iraq to a more limited one that focuses on counterterrorism missions, protecting Americans and training Iraqi troops. Any legislation, which could be tacked onto the emergency supplemental request, will contain "a reasonable timetable for the redeployment of most of our troops (in) nine months, 12 months," he said. Bush has vowed to veto any binding timetable.
Pelosi and Reid also called for a "change" in strategy in Iraq, but have made no firm call for troop withdrawals. In that same letter, Democrats outlined their intent on putting more focus on confronting Iran, supporting Israel, fighting Al Qaeda and finding Usama bin Laden, who is believed to be in the lawless border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Democrats and the Bush administration have reached common ground over some priorities, like an increased presence in Kabul. While traveling in Europe on Friday alongside Bush, Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced the intent to put more troops in Afghanistan next year, even as the United States prepares to elect a new president in November. About 31,000 U.S. forces in Afghanistan now.
The Money Debate
With oil prices on the rise and a weakening American economy, Democrats, who have been holding strategy sessions for weeks, also want to force Iraqis to spend more of their own money — which mostly comes from oil sales — for reconstruction and military expenses.
"Do not forget this. ... Iraq is a rich country," Reid said last week in a speech on the chamber floor.
"Record-high oil prices have supplied Iraq with literally more money than they know what to do with, but we keep spending $5,000 a second in Iraq," he said. "As we borrow and spend billions of dollars to provide the security that the Iraqi government failed to create for themselves, Iraq is bringing in billions of oil money faster than they can open bank accounts."
In the same vein, Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska has said Iraqis should no longer get "a blank check," and has proposed any future U.S. taxpayer dollars to Iraq be made in the form of a loan.
Privately, Hill staffers indicate that Nelson's loan plan could be an area for bipartisan compromise. One senior Senate Democratic leadership aide told FOX News the loan "idea is certainly being considered." And one senior Senate Republican leadership aide agreed that the idea is an attractive one, even though the Senate has rejected it before.
But the GOP aide said one resource that may be off limits is remaining reconstruction money, which is going to field commanders for needed economic development and other items.
"The funds are one of the most important counterinsurgency tools we have in Iraq. It's more powerful than rifles. They won't want to cut that, and there's very little other money they can cut. So it might backfire," the Republican aide said.
Levin agreed about the importance of this kind of money — housed in the Commander's Emergency Response Program — which military leaders use to win "hearts and minds" of local leaders. Still, Petraeus might be reconsidering the effectiveness of those funds, Levin said Friday.
"I think General Petraeus is looking for ways to have the Iraqis use more of their money."
Basra in Focus
Recent events in Basra will also be high on the agenda for members. Sen. Lindsey Graham said he gave the Iraqis an " 'A' for effort, probably a 'D' for execution" after a flare-up between Iraqi government fighters and militia members led by Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr that was only resolved through the intervention of Iran.
Graham praised Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki for his leadership despite saying he had not done enough to curb Shiite militias. Maliki "acted maybe in an impulsive manner, to go down there and intimidate the militias, (but) did well around Baghdad, well around Sadr City, and mixed bag in Basra, captured the port," he said. "The ability to fight has improved, but they got ahead of themselves. They got ahead of themselves with improper planning," Graham said.
Levin, who already has called for the replacement of Maliki, was much more critical of the Basra mission.
"We were dragged into that mission by a precipitous decision, a unilateral decision by the prime minister, who is incompetent, whose administration is corrupt," Levin said, adding: "We cannot be in that position, where our troops are brought into a communal conflict, their lives jeopardized by a prime minister who's got a political agenda, not just a military agenda, that's highly sectarian."
Pelosi issued a stern warning to Petraeus on Thursday, saying she hopes the general does not "put a shine on events (in Basra) because of a resolution that looks less violent."
"What I hope we don't hear from General Petraeus next week is any glorification of what has just happened in Basra. Any presentation that says that the Iraqi forces went in there did the job, violence is diminished, mission accomplished. Because the fact is there are many questions that arise in relationship to Basra," she said.
Though not addressing the substance of what Pelosi said about Basra, Graham took strong exception with the speaker's implication that Petraeus might gloss over the negative, crying, "I have no confidence Speaker Pelosi will ever accept anything coming out of Iraq other than a loss."
FOX News' Trish Turner contributed to this report.