The Iraq hearings on Capitol Hill this week were decidedly low-key, particularly when sized up against Congress' last bout with Gen. David Petraeus and Amb. Ryan Crocker in September.
No angry outbursts, no aggressive questioning this time around.
Some saw in the two days of testimony signs of a changing political climate. Sources say Democratic war critics now appear to recognize they don't have the votes to change the mission in Iraq and are biding their time until the November election, when they hope a Democratic president-elect will prepare for drastic shifts in Iraq policy.
Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wisc, author of a proposal that would restrict war funding to force a change in mission in Iraq, said the muffled tone of the hearings was because "the American people understand this (the war) isn't working, and it isn't necessary to take as aggressive a tone, because the cards are on the table. They've had their 'surge'. We continue to take huge losses that sap the force of its strength. They have a losing hand."
Feingold said, "Even though we're frustrated we can't change the policy, we know there's going to be a different president, and at least in two out of three cases there will be presumably a markedly different policy."
A senior Senate Democratic leadership aide echoed this sentiment to FOX News, adding that Democrats basically know that they do not have the votes to force a change in mission before this year's presidential elections.
Nothing they could do with the witnesses would change that.
Asked if there is anything Democrats can do until then, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., bluntly stated, "Candidly, not a lot."
The senator, a Hillary Clinton supporter, gave voice to what many Senate Democratic aides are saying behind the scenes.
"I think right now it's all up to the presidential elections, and I think the choices are pretty clear," she said.
(Feingold is officially uncommitted to a presidential candidate, but he told FOX News he voted for Barack Obama in his state's primary and is "very heavily leaning" in favor of voting for him as a superdelegate.)
Feingold said he's still looking at various bills on which to offer his Iraq mission proposal, which he has co-sponsored with Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., and Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., but no decision has been made.
Dodd told FOX News Democratic leaders have said they would like to focus more on Afghanistan than Iraq. Dodd said he is not certain he and Feingold will even get a vote this year. One senior Senate Democratic leadership aide told FOX News that Reid and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., prefer to keep troop language off the supplemental this year and have made this preference known in private meetings with their colleagues.
And Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., told FOX News he intends to offer some version of his legislation that calls for a change in mission within nine to 12 months of the bill passing. It is likely he will try to lure more Republicans by making the measure nonbinding, or not having the force of law.
But one senior Senate Republican leadership aide predicted that, "With the progress made in Iraq, I think Republicans are willing to stick together this time."
Settling for Domestic Relief
Reid in recent days has focused more on adding domestic funding to the upcoming war supplemental, rather than forcing a change of mission, as he has done in the past. A spokesman told FOX News that Democrats will seek to add about $30 billion in domestic spending to the measure.
Several Democratic aides said additional help for Katrina-affected areas would be in the bill, funding for western wildfires, and $15 billion in unemployment insurance extension, something Democrats tried to tack onto a recent economic stimulus bill to no avail. And major Democratic contributor John Sweeney, president of the powerful AFL-CIO, was on the Hill Thursday to help press home the need for the aid.
Senate Republican leadership aides predict a showdown over this added funding, which they call "pork.”. And while President Bush voiced concern Thursday about the bill being "fiscally responsible," he did not refer to the added spending in his veto threat.
Bush focused more on the topline total for the supplemental in remarks to reporters, stating, "Members of Congress must pass a bill that provides our troops the resources they need and does not tie the hands of our commanders or impose artificial timelines for withdrawal. This bill must also be fiscally responsible. It must not exceed the reasonable $108 billion request I sent to Congress months ago. If the bill meets all these requirements, it will be a strong show of support for our troops. If it doesn't, I'll veto it."
Meanwhile, Reid said he would seek to codify the president's announcement that troop tours would be reduced from 15 months to 12, offering a bipartisan measure authored by combat veterans Sens. Jim Webb, D-Va., and Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., which would mandate one year at home for every year deployed.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., top surrogate to GOP presidential candidate Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., vehemently opposed this effort.
"This would be a major departure from how the constitutional responsibilities are assigned, and it would be a disaster for the military to allow a bunch of politicians, based on the headlines each week, to change troop rotations. So not only I'm going to vote against it, I'm going to argue against it as the worst thing you could do long term for our national security," he said.
Bipartisan support does appear to be gaining for another measure, however, that would make all future U.S. reconstruction money for Iraq a loan, as well as getting Iraqis to pay for their own training and security, and possibly even for gasoline used by U.S. troops.
Sen. Ben. Nelson, D-Neb., is working with Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, to craft a bill that would do this, but there are substantial problems in figuring out just what the Iraqis are currently paying for. Collins told FOX News her staff is trying "to find an independent analysis."
Nelson even asked Defense Secretary Robert Gates Thursday for help, but Gates indicated that while he is not sure, he would take the "loan" idea to the White House for consideration.
“We have focused as we have begun to look at sums of money that Iraq is earning from the oil sales. We have just in recent weeks been looking at ensuring that the reconstruction funds and the military equipment for them are increasingly and dramatically headed in the direction of them picking up those costs,” he said. “The subject of their reimbursing us and those kinds of things or areas where they would pay for certain services has not been broached yet, because of this focus on reconstruction and military equipment."
Petraeus, under intense questioning Tuesday from anti-war critic Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif, about the Iraqis shouldering more financial burden, as the country pulls in more money from the skyrocketing price of crude oil, conceded: "I think that if there's anything that the ambassador and I will take back to Iraq candidly after this morning's session and this afternoon's is, in fact, to ask those kinds of questions more directly."
Bush announced Thursday that the Iraqis would, in fact, match the funds U.S. commanders use on the ground to re-build war torn homes and schools, for instance, and win hearts and minds, called CERP funds -- or Commanders' Emergency Response Program.
"They have committed the $300 million that I mentioned in my statement to Iraq CERP that offsets, in fact, what we are spending," he said.
One senior Republican Senator told FOX News he is prepared to offer his own amendment to the supplemental to make all U.S. nonmilitary funding a loan, and he said there is substantial support for this in his conference.
"It really is a no-brainer. I mean, they're making a ton of money off their oil. Why should we be paying for anything?" he said.