Sunday, January 07, 2007

Dems prepare slew of oversight hearings

Dems prepare slew of oversight hearings
Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON (AP) -- In this new era of divided government, the congressional hearing room is where the executive and legislative branches will clash.

Over the next few weeks, Senate Democrats plan to hold at least 11 hearings just on Iraq. In the House, one of the Democrats' most dogged investigators is waiting to spring his committee on a different mission - suspected government fraud.

From the war to environmental policy and secret surveillance, the Democrats who now control both the House and Senate are armed with subpoena power and ready to summon panels of witnesses.

These newly empowered Democrats plan to put the Bush administration under scrutiny like never before.

"One of the clearest messages of the last election was that the Republican leadership was just AWOL when it came to holding the Bush administration accountable," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

The congressional hearing room is a Washington set piece: A lonely witness at a table covered in red velvet, klieg lights glaring, a determined inquisitor across the floor. Congressional power in its rawest form.

Iraq is the focal point of Democratic efforts.

Beginning this week, when Bush is expected to disclose his new war strategy, three Senate and at least two House committees plan to call Cabinet members to testify about the president's policy.

"We will use these hearings to ask tough questions, demand real solutions and keep working to bring this war to a close," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said Saturday in his party's weekly radio address.

The hearings are one way for Democrats to respond to the party's anti-war wing. Last week, as Democrats prepared to assume power in the new Congress, anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan and a group of protesters interrupted a Democratic press conference, chanting "De-escalate. Investigate. Troops home now!"

The outburst highlighted the limited options Democrats have on redirecting policy in Iraq. Short of cutting off money for the war - a step Democratic leaders say they will not take - Congress has little recourse but to agitate publicly against Bush's strategy.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Reid wrote Bush last week to express their opposition to a potential temporary increase in the number of troops in Iraq - an idea Bush is said to be considering.

Some Democrats, so far a minority, want Congress to take a stand against an emergency spending bill that Bush is expected to send to Congress to pay for military and reconstruction operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

That bill "is a vehicle for continuing the war through the end of Bush's term" in early 2009, said Democratic Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, who is running for president in 2008. "You cannot say you oppose the war and continue to fund it."

Reid on Friday reiterated that Democrats would not use spending legislation to try to change the course of the war. In fact, Democratic strategists say it is far better for the party to keep the war focus on Bush than it is to devise a detailed exit plan for Iraq.

"We are not at a point at this moment where I can say we have a specific strategy, but we have several options," said Sen. Richard Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Democratic leader.

One idea under consideration would cap the number of troops Bush could send to Iraq.

"It could be legislation that requires the president to come for congressional approval for troops over a certain level," Durbin said, quickly adding there was no Democratic agreement on such an option. "I'm giving you speculation. This is not strategy."

Besides the focus on Iraq, Democratic committee chairmen are planning their own policy oversight sessions with Bush officials.

"We need to be the watchdog," said Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif.

From his perch as chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, Waxman said he intends to tackle instances of "waste, fraud and abuse." He did not specify his first target, but previously has expressed interest in investigating federal contracts in Iraq and in the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina struck.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has said he will examine the administration's policies on torture and other human rights issues. His request for data exposed one of the first rifts between the new Congress and the administration when the Justice Department refused to provide the committee with two secret documents that describe CIA detention and interrogation policies for suspected terrorists.

Leahy, D-Vt., stopped short of threatening the use of a subpoena to get the documents. But he told Attorney General Alberto Gonzales that he "would pursue this matter further" when the committee holds its first oversight hearing.

Now that Bush had accepted the resignation of Harriet Miers as his top in-house lawyer, the White House is preparing to revamp its counsel's office in anticipation of a more aggressive and demanding Congress.

Miers was one of Reid's favorite White House officials and the senator applauded Bush for nominating her to the Supreme Court in 2005 - though she eventually withdrew from consideration. Her replacement probably will not elicit the same warm response.