Sunday, February 11, 2007

Empowered Democrats examine Bush administration

Empowered Democrats examine Bush administration
By Thomas Ferraro

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Recently empowered congressional Democrats are pounding President George W. Bush with their most feared new weapons -- the ability to hold hearings and compel testimony.

In recent days, Democrats have used hearings to accuse his administration of twisting intelligence on Iraq, cry foul over the firing of federal prosecutors and question the sanity of anyone who would send 363 tons of cash -- $12 billion worth -- into a war zone.

"I think the American people are now seeing how Congress should operate, with congressional oversight hearings," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat.

Since taking control of Congress last month, Democrats have turned the Capitol upside down. With dozens of hearings, they have searched for administration skeletons and looked for possible fraud, waste or abuse of power in such matters as homeland security, disaster relief and global warming.

Bush made a significant concession to Democrats now armed with subpoena power, agreeing to give selected lawmakers access to classified documents about his domestic spying program to see if it honors privacy rights.

"A change in party matters when it comes to exposing failures of an administration," said Paul Light, of New York University's John Brademas Center for the Study of Congress.

When Congress is controlled by an opposing party, presidents usually are unable to enact much significant legislation in their final two years in office, he said.


But Light said the situation "does provide oversight and the development of issues for the next presidential campaign."

Democrats promised stepped-up oversight when they won control of the House of Representatives and Senate in November from Bush's Republicans.

Republicans deny Democratic charges that there was little oversight when they were in charge and now accuse Democrats of overdoing it.

House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Henry Waxman had four oversight hearings this week. At one, he challenged the logic of the United States sending nearly $12 billion in cash to Baghdad during the first year of the war without strict accounting of it.

"Who in their right mind would send 363 tons of cash into a war zone?" the California Democrat said. "We have no way of knowing whether the cash that was shipped into the Green Zone ended up in enemy hands."

Democrats on the Senate Armed Service Committee used a hearing with the Pentagon's inspector general to confront the administration over its decision to go to war in Iraq.

The inspector general issued a report that concluded former defense policy chief Douglas Feith helped justify the Iraq war with questionable intelligence about Saddam Hussein's links to al Qaeda.

"The inspector general's report is a devastating condemnation," said committee chairman Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat.

Republicans rushed to the administration's defense, noting there were widespread disagreements about prewar Iraq's capabilities.

At a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty denied accusations that politics was a factor in firings of seven U.S. prosecutors in the past year.

"When I hear you talk about the politicizing of the Department of Justice, it is like a knife in my heart," McNulty said.

"What I have seen happen in the Justice Department is a knife in my heart," replied Sen. Charles Schumer, a New York Democrat.

(Additional reporting by Richard Cowan)