|NY Times, September 5, 2007
Democrats Aim to Reframe Iraq Debate
By DAVID M. HERSZENHORN
WASHINGTON, Sept. 4 — As Congress reopened for business on Tuesday, the Democratic leadership promised to force a change in President Bush’s war strategy, and lawmakers maneuvered to frame the debate over Iraq ahead of reports next week by Gen. David H. Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker.
“Many of my Republican friends have long held September as the month for the policy change in Iraq,” Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the Democratic majority leader, said in his opening speech on the Senate floor. “It’s September.”
“The calendar hasn’t changed,” he said. “It’s time to make a decision. We can’t continue the way we are.”
Mr. Reid’s speech, which included sharp criticism of President Bush, reflected an aggressive effort by the Democrats to shape the discourse over the war before General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker testify.
Aides said Senator Reid was trying to signal a new willingness to compromise across party lines when he called on Republicans to join in finding a way “to responsibly end this war.” Such a deal would almost certainly require Mr. Reid to drop his demand for a fixed deadline for withdrawal, which brought the Senate to an impasse on the war in July.
In a hearing later in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, war critics seized on a new report by the Government Accountability Office showing virtually no political progress by the Iraqi government as the latest evidence that the president’s military strategy was failing.
It is too soon to say how far either side in the deeply divided Congress is willing to bend, and the hearing before the Senate committee, which is not as sharply partisan as the full Senate, offered few clues.
The report on Iraq that was presented there, while scarcely a glowing assessment, was noticeably rosier than a draft version that began to circulate last week, which found that Iraq had fallen short on 13 of the 18 standards for progress, partly meeting two. The Pentagon disputed that finding, saying it was too cut-and-dried a depiction of a fluid and complex situation.
The final version, released Tuesday, found that 3 of 18 benchmarks had been met and 4 others had been partly met. It was written by David M. Walker, comptroller general of the United States, who testified at the hearing.
“It is hard to draw any assessment except that there is a failing grade for a policy that is still not working,” said Senator John Kerry, Democrat of Massachusetts, who ran the hearing in the absence of the committee chairman, Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, who is running for president and will go to Iraq this week.
Senator Norm Coleman, Republican of Minnesota, suggested that the report did not include data from August and that more recent numbers presented a more positive picture. “The data in August, I think, would be very clear about the reduction in violence,” Mr. Coleman told Mr. Walker.
But some Republican committee members, including the ranking member, Richard G. Lugar of Indiana, said they accepted the report as an independent accounting of the Iraqi government’s performance to date.
And Mr. Lugar, one of the Senate’s top experts on foreign affairs, raised some broad and probing questions about the overall prospects for success in Iraq, including the possibility that Iraqis did not really want a unified government.
“Do Iraqis want to be Iraqis?” Mr. Lugar asked. “Is there a sense of those 25 million people that they want to be one nation, as opposed to some Iraqis wanting to dominate the whole lot?” He added, “If the answer to that question is that, fundamentally, Iraqis have not come to the conclusion they want to be Iraqis, then we have an awesome problem.”
Elsewhere on Capitol Hill, there were growing signs — some subtle, others shrill — that lawmakers were growing frustrated with partisanship and increasingly eager for a change of direction in Iraq that would signal progress to American voters.
Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican minority leader, who urged in his opening speech on Tuesday that Congress wait for General Petraeus and “listen to what he says without prejudice,” also sounded a note of bipartisanship. At a separate news conference he said that he envisioned a long-term American military presence in the Middle East but perhaps not in Iraq.
“I would like to see us with at least some level of bipartisan agreement that we need a long-term deployment somewhere in the Middle East in the future for two reasons: Al Qaeda and Iran,” he said.
And in a letter to the House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, and the minority leader, John A. Boehner, 11 lawmakers — six Republicans and five Democrats — urged cooperation in developing a new war strategy.
“We ask that you, our leaders, work together to put an end to the political infighting over the war in Iraq, and allow the House to unite behind a bipartisan strategy to stabilize the country and bring our troops home,” the members wrote.
The letter was publicized after Representative Boehner, Republican of Ohio, issued a strongly worded statement criticizing the G.A.O. report. He called it “an unfair way to judge our troops’ progress,” adding, “The report was designed to guarantee an unsatisfactory result.”
Representative Steny H. Hoyer, a Maryland Democrat and the House majority leader, issued an equally biting statement, saying the report “confirms what the large majority of Americans already know: the president’s stay-the-course policy in Iraq is not working.”
The renewed push-and-pull over Iraq occurred as Congress returned from a four-week recess that was in many ways more tumultuous than relaxing.
At his news conference, Mr. McConnell spent much of the time taking questions about Senator Larry E. Craig of Idaho, who announced his resignation after the disclosure that he pleaded guilty to a disorderly conduct charge after being arrested by a police officer cracking down on sexual activity in a Minneapolis airport bathroom.
The absence of Mr. Craig, who did not return to Washington even though his resignation is not effective until Sept. 30, and the expected return Wednesday of Senator Tim Johnson, Democrat of South Dakota, who had been recovering from a brain hemorrhage that he suffered last December, effectively widened the Democrats’ slim majority, though they are still well shy of the 60 votes needed in the Senate for most bills to move forward.
Carl Hulse contributed reporting.