Congress isn't necessarily an agile body, but the Democrats have managed to turn it into a sort of massive rapid-response organization this week. Realizing that the president's long-delayed announcement of a new "way forward" in Iraq would deny coverage to much of their "first 100 hours" agenda, Democratic leaders have shifted focus to the war and to their opposition to the president's plan for sending more troops to fight it.
The House Foreign Affairs Committee will grill Condoleezza Rice on Bush's new war plan Thursday. The House Armed Services Committee will question Secretary of Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Joint Chiefs chairman Gen. Peter Pace. And in the Senate today, Ted Kennedy will introduce legislation that would prohibit George W. Bush from spending any money to increase the number of U.S. forces beyond the number serving today unless and until he obtains further authorization from Congress to do so.
The Kennedy measure seems to walk the line Democrats need to walk on the troop increase -- deny Bush the funding for more troops without subjecting themselves to the argument that they're voting against funds for the troops already in the field. While Joe Biden said over the weekend that there really isn't much Congress can do about a war once it gives the president authority to fight one, Kennedy's bill says the war in Iraq today "no longer bears any resemblance to the mission of the Armed Forces authorized by Congress" in 2002. Congress authorized military force then based on claims that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and an "operational relationship" with al-Qaida, the bill says. Four years later, it says, U.S. troops are fighting a "civil war" Congress never authorized.
It's not clear how many senators will support Kennedy's measure. A lot of them, at least on the Republican side of the aisle, would probably like to avoid having to take a position on the Bush "surge" one way or the other. Bush met Monday with about 30 Republican senators; emerging from the meeting, Sen. Thad Cochran said he was "the only senator who acted like he would be supportive" of the plan Bush will propose Wednesday night.
As for Democrats? On the Senate floor a few minutes ago, New Jersey Sen. Frank Lautenberg spoke for a lot of them -- and for a lot of Americans, too. Saying that Bush has made "terrible judgments" at "every turn" in Iraq, Lautenberg asked why the American people should trust the president "to understand what he's getting us into" now. Democrats will make similar pronouncements at every opportunity this week. At a press conference on 9/11 Commission recommendations Monday, House Appropriations Committee chairman David Obey said that he was "confused" by the president's plan to send more troops to Iraq. "We have been told that Americans would stand down as the Iraqis stood up," he said. The president's new plan, he said, seems to have shifted from "stand up, stand down" to "stand up, stand up."
This may not be how the Democrats planned to spend their first full week in control of Congress, but it accomplishes -- arguably more successfully -- the same goal that they hoped to meet with their original plan, which continues albeit a little out of the spotlight: Demonstrate to the voters that they, not the president or his party, share the views of the American public and will actually be responsive to them.