It's not every day that the Senate finds itself enjoying the taunts of a war protester screaming bloody murder as he is dragged from the room. "Lies! It's all lies!" bellowed the man, as the Capitol Police ejected him from a meeting of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Thursday. "Stop lying! Stop lying! Stop the war!"
After the yells had abated, committee chairman Joseph Biden, a Delaware Democrat who wants to be president, turned to Chuck Hagel, a Nebraska Republican who wants to be president. "He wasn't referring to you," Biden joked.
Hagel didn't miss a beat. "He's not from Nebraska, Mr. Chairman. He took the train over from Delaware, that fella did." Laughter filled the room. Up to that point, no one had been having any fun, not the senators, not the press, and definitely not Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who had the unenviable job of sitting alone before a panel of angry politicians and trying to defend President Bush's new plan for victory in Iraq. "It was a little heavy," Hagel said a moment later, about the mood in the room. "We needed a break."
But the levity did not last. The senators went right back to attacking Rice, the only proxy they had handy for an unpopular president and his unpopular plan. "I have to say, Madam Secretary, that I think this speech given last night by this president represents the most dangerous foreign policy blunder in this country since Vietnam," announced Hagel, who earned two Purple Hearts as an infantryman in that war.
"I've gone along with the president on this, and I bought into his dream," Ohio Sen. George Voinovich added a few minutes later. "At this stage of the game, I don't think it's going to happen." Minnesota's Norm Coleman seemed to agree: "The cost is too high," he said of the plan for more troops. New Hampshire's John Sununu expressed mild disappointment. Added Alaska's Lisa Murkowski: "I'm not convinced, as I look to the plan that the president presented yesterday, that what we are seeing is that much different than what we have been doing in the past."
And those were just the sentiments of Republicans. The Democrats pulled even fewer punches. "Failed strategy," said New Jersey's Robert Menendez.
"Extremely disappointed," said Maryland's Ben Cardin.
"A true nightmare," said Wisconsin's Russ Feingold.
"A fool's paradise," said Connecticut's Chris Dodd.
"More of a mess than at any time previously," said Massachusetts' John Kerry.
Even Bill Nelson, the hawkish Florida Democrat who backed the invasion of Iraq, joined in the Bush bashing by repeating the ejected protester's message. "I cannot continue to support the administration's position," he announced. "I have not been told the truth over and over again by administration witnesses. And the American people have not been told the truth."
Through it all, Rice sat alone at her table, looking like a polite schoolgirl being scolded by her teachers. Her hands were folded in her lap, her legs crossed. She occasionally scribbled notes with a sharp new pencil and waited patiently for the senators to finish their condemnations. Like a true diplomat, she kept her responses vague. She called the increase in troops an "augmentation" not an escalation. "I want to be not explicit about what we might do because I don't want to speculate," she said at one point, when asked what would happen if the Iraqi government fails to cooperate with the new plan. "I don't think you go to plan B," she said, without describing the contents of Plan B. "You work with Plan A."
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee is, by almost any measure, a bellwether group. Of its 21 members, it includes seven men who have displayed unabashed presidential ambitions, and two Republicans from blue-trending states, Coleman and Sununu, who can expect tough reelection fights in 2008. Democratic Senate aides have been circulating a list of 10 Republicans, including three on the committee, who they see as possible votes for a non-binding resolution condemning the president's new plan. Over on the House side, eight Republican congressmen have signed a letter to the president opposing any surge in troops, while several others have expressed reservations elsewhere. Some of the letter writers are longtime opponents of the conflict. But the signatories also include some notable names from increasingly blue states, like Maryland's Roscoe Bartlett, Pennsylvania's Phil English and Ohio's Steven LaTourette.
By the afternoon, some of that Republican frustration had spilled into the overflowing chambers of the House Armed Services Committee, where Secretary of Defense Bob Gates and Joint Chiefs chairman Peter Pace came to face the music, before 61 members of Congress. Though more upbeat than the Senate, several Republicans voiced clear reservations about the new plan. "I just have my doubts of whether the Iraqis will show up," offered Rep. John McHugh, a New York Republican. "I view this, at best, as a last opportunity and a last hope."
Unlike Rice, who mostly avoided providing any new information, Pace and Gates filled in the details of the president's new plan. The Iraqi government had agreed to raise the number of troops in Baghdad from 42,000 to 50,000, and the U.S. military would initially increase its presence in the city from 24,000 to 31,000, send 4,000 more troops to the Sunni heartland, and then prepare to ship over an additional 10,500 troops as needed, said Pace. But both Pace and Gates described the Iraqi government's decision to cooperate as far more significant than the increase in troops. "There is no number of additional U.S. troops that will make a difference absent the political will of the Iraqi leadership and the religious leadership," Pace explained. His comments came less than two months after a leaked White House memo expressed serious doubts about the determination of the Iraqi government.
Asked how long the surge would last, Gates was noncommittal. "I think most of us are thinking of it in terms of a matter of months," he said.
If anything, the twin hearings Thursday offered a glimpse into the next several months of Congress. The president, having decided to buck Washington's conventional wisdom and the American opinion, has forced congressional Democrats into a rhetorical war they are unlikely to be able to back up with action. As the hearings commenced, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky announced that Republicans would filibuster, or delay indefinitely, any legislation that expresses disapproval or chokes off funds for President Bush's new plan. Even if a filibuster fails, Bush appears sure to veto any substantive encroachments on his authority as commander in chief.
That sets the conditions for increasingly bombastic lectures to unwavering administration officials and an ever-darkening mood on Capitol Hill. If events continue down their current path, America can expect many more days when the most lighthearted moments result from the cries of protesters being led away by police.