Iraq Issue Likely to Dominate New Congress

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Iraq will be the big issue at hand when the new Democratic Congress confronts President Bush in January. At some point, both sides will have the Iraq Study Group's report to consider. Despite the variety of opinions on the subject, answers to the problems in Iraq will be hard to come by.

JOHN YDSTIE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm John Ydstie sitting in for Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

President Bush is spending the week overseas, first in Eastern Europe, where he'll meet with NATO allies, and then in Jordan, where he expects to meet with Iraq's prime minister. That meeting is expected to focus on reducing sectarian violence, especially in the Iraqi capital, Baghdad.

Joining us now is NPR News analyst Cokie Roberts. Good morning.

COKIE ROBERTS: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Well, first up, The New York Times is reporting today on a draft report of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group. And of course keeping in mind that this is a report about something that's not yet a final document and we've heard a lot about it, are there any surprises?

ROBERTS: Well, I think essentially no in what's being reported so far, but that's because ideas have been bandied about Iraq and what to do about Iraq for a good while now. And of course the truth is there are just not that many options. So far the draft, however, reportedly says nothing about American troop withdrawal, so that might be something of a surprise. Apparently the members of the commission will be hashing out that issue of whether there should be a timetable for troop withdrawal. And it shows the problems that Iraq poses when this group of highly distinguished people who are used to getting along are having trouble agreeing.

Apparently it does call for direct talks with Iran and Syria, which the administration has found problematic at best. The president, as you said, is headed to Jordan. And King Abdullah of Jordan yesterday said on ABC that he is concerned that there are three potential civil wars in the Middle East region, not just Iraq, but among the Palestinians and Lebanon. So the president goes at a very difficult time as this report is leaking out and as the United States Congress is beginning to lose patience with the politicians in Iraq. Republican Senators Sam Brownback of Kansas and Chuck Hagel of Nebraska yesterday made that impatience very clear.

MONTAGNE: And as the newly-elected Democratic Congress starts asserting itself, what impact is that likely to have on policy?

ROBERTS: Well again there's not much they can do about Iraq and I think not much they will do. And they're making it clear that they're going to move cautiously on contentious issues, that they will go immediately for what's essentially low-lying fruit: minimum wage, some other popular matters - trying to get rid of tax breaks for big oil as they call it.

But also those investigations that we've talked about are clearly going to happen pretty quickly. Congressman John Dingell, who is now going to be chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee and is a stickler for oversight, has said that he is going to start investigations pretty quickly. He argues has had hardly any oversight. He's going to take a look at the contracts in Iraq, so that would be one way of getting in Iraq. Not to mention the Medicare drug benefits, where he says there's been lots and lots of scandal.

MONTAGNE: And what about all the talk of bipartisanship?

ROBERTS: Well, there's a lot of talk still of bipartisanship, and I think they'll start off trying to be bipartisan. But that goes by the boards very quickly when you have this degree of animus and also these kinds of issues where people genuinely, vehemently disagree. So I wouldn't hold my breath on bipartisanship.

MONTAGNE: Cokie, thanks very much. NPR News analyst Cokie Roberts.

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