Afghanistan Conflict Comes To Congress This Week

The war in Afghanistan is likely to be Topic A this week on Capitol Hill as the Senate takes up its annual defense spending bill. Last week, a leaked report from the commander of NATO forces there, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, warned that the war would "likely result in failure" if the United States did not provide more troops. President Obama is struggling with the issue — as Congress struggles with funding the war. NPR's David Welna reviews the week in Congress and tells host Liane Hansen about coming events.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

Foreign policy is likely to be topic A this week on Capitol Hill as the Senate takes up its annual defense spending bill. Iran test-fired some short-range missiles today, a few days after admitting that it had a second uranium enrichment facility. And a leaked report from the commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan warned that the war there would fail if the United States doesn't send more troops.

NPR congressional correspondent David Welna joins us to discuss these and other matters on Capitol Hill. Hi, David.

DAVID WELNA: Hi, Liane.

HANSEN: Let's start with Iran. The defense bill includes money for the missile defense system. President Obama said last week that missile defense is being modified because of the perceived threat of a long-range nuclear strike from Iran was being downgraded. Does anything that happened this week change--?

WELNA: Well, I think that things are not necessarily going to change that much. I expect to hear Republicans like John McCain asserting that this latest revelation about Iran's nuclear ambitions only makes it that much more imperative not to scrap the missile defense sites that had been planned for Poland and the Czech Republic.

But I think, at this point at least, Congress won't have much to say about what the Obama administration does next with Iran, though lawmakers may move soon to impose economic sanctions if Iran won't agree to more intrusive international inspections of its nuclear sites.

HANSEN: And about Afghanistan, if President Obama and the Democrats decide to send more troops, they risk a quagmire; if they vote against funding, they risk being accused of being cut-and-run. How do you see this being resolved?

WELNA: Well, this is getting very messy politically. Much of the Pentagon brass seems to be lining up behind General Stanley McChrystal, he's the top commander in Afghanistan, and it was his grim assessment of the situation that got leaked this past week to the Washington Post. And in it, McChrystal warns that unless more troops are added, the U.S. mission there will likely result in failure.

This weekend, he forwarded his estimate of how many more troops might be needed to Defense Secretary Gates. But President Obama says he wants to make sure he's got the right strategy for Afghanistan before he makes any decision about sending more troops. Congressional Republicans, meanwhile, are demanding that McChrystal brief Congress before any decisions get made. And this gets even more complicated because Democrats, both in Congress and in the White House, are divided over sending more troops, as polls show plummeting public support for this eight-year-long war.

President Obama made a fairly quick decision soon after taking office to send 21,000 more troops, partly so Afghanistan could hold elections. But those elections are now widely considered fraudulent and so Mr. Obama may be reluctant to be seen propping up the Karzai government with more troops. But the pressure is certainly on to make a decision soon.

HANSEN: Can you tell us in a few seconds what happens to health care?

WELNA: Well, a big bill is moving through the Senate Finance Committee. Not much got done this past week in voting to amend it; all the Republican initiatives that were introduced got shot down. And that panel has yet to hold a vote on the big bone of contention, the fact that its plan has no public option in it.

But I think the place where we're really going to see this get resolved is on the Senate floor. Democrats now have a filibuster-proof majority there of 60 now that Senator Paul Kirk's been sworn in to replace the late Ted Kennedy.

HANSEN: NPR congressional correspondent David Welna joined us from Capitol Hill. Thank you, David.

WELNA: You're welcome, Liane.

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