National Security Will Top Democrats' Agenda

Democrats take control of the House and Senate next week. That means they will be in charge of all the committees in Congress. And some of the most closely watched committees are likely to be those with oversight of national security issues, including the war in Iraq.

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Democrats take control of the House and Senate next week. They will also be in charge of all the committees in Congress. And some of the most closely watched committees are likely to be those involved in national security issues, in particular the war in Iraq.

NPR's David Welna has this preview of what's some of the chairmen of these panels in the Senate plan to do.

DAVID WELNA: The Democratic takeover of Congress sets the stage for a battle of wills between the Legislative and Executive branches of government. That's because the Democrats say they'll exercise the kind of oversight of the Bush administration that Republicans have not, which maybe why President Bush struck such a conciliatory note during his end of the year news conference last week.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: Next year marks a new start with the new Congress. In recent weeks, I've had good meetings with the incoming leaders of Congress, including Speaker-elect Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader-elect Harry Reid. We agreed that we've got important business to do on behalf of the American people, and that we've got to work together to achieve results.

WELNA: But that let's all just get along attitude was not in evidence the day Congress adjourned. When the soon to be Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid got back to the Capitol from a meeting with President Bush that day, he was already using fighting words. Reid bowed Congress will be taking a much closer look at an emergency funding request for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that President Bush plans to send lawmakers shortly.

Senator HARRY REID (Senate Majority Leader-elect): We're told this year is going to be approaching a $150 billion. And so we're not going to accept that just as he has given to us as we have tended to do in the past. That will be scrubbed very closely.

WELNA: And Carl Levin, who will be chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, goes even further. He says President Bush will be violating the law if he sends Congress and other emergency funding request for the war.

Senator CARL LEVIN (Democrat, Michigan): The requests for funding the war need to be in the budget request. And as a matter of fact, Congress passed a law this year requiring the president to include the costs of war in the budget request.

WELNA: Levin will be holding a series of hearings on Iraq after the president speaks to the nation about his plans for a new direction in the war. The first witnesses he'll invite, Levin says, are the Secretary of Defense and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The aim, he says, is to cut the country's losses in Iraq.

Sen. LEVIN: That's our first order of business. The loss of lives by our militaries, a lot of our taxpayer's treasure is just huge and we've got to try to bring it to an end, hopefully, successfully, but changing the current course in order to increase the chances of success.

WELNA: Levin says the Armed Services panel's second order of business will be probing areas where he thinks oversight has been lacking especially when it comes to the treatment of detainees.

Sen. LEVIN: And that includes the role of the intelligence community, the role of top leaders, some of the lower level personnel have been held accountable, but what went on at Abu Ghraib and to some extent at Guantanamo, well, it was not just a few enlisted personnel performing misdeeds. There were policies here, which were being implemented, which were wrong policies, which were abusive policies, which endangered our own troops, if others followed those policies.

WELNA: The Republican-led intelligence committee did step up an investigation of how intelligence was used to make the case for invading Iraq. But that happened only after Democrats shut down all business on the Senate floor. And while the probe has since gone forward, only two of its five parts have been completed.

Still, a couple of weeks after Democrats won back control of the Senate, Jay Rockefeller, who's the intelligence panel's incoming chairman, downplayed the need to wrap up those unfinished parts of what committee insiders call the Phase 2 probe.

Senator JAY ROCKEFELLER (Democrat, West Virginia): I'm not saying there hasn't been enough on anything because that's the past and I'm not really looking at that. But what I am saying is that it's now going to be a committee that works in a bipartisan fashion and it really will.

WELNA: Rockefeller maybe vowing greater harmony in what's been a fractious intelligence panel, but as party leader Reid declared, just before Congress left town, that the politically divisive Phase 2 probe must be completed.

Sen. REID: There's been foot-dragging for more than two years in that regard. Senator Rockefeller has the charge to go ahead and complete that. So yes, we are going to look at how the intelligence was manipulated prior to going to war.

WELNA: The Senate Foreign Relations Committee also plans a series of hearings on Iraq. Incoming Chairman Joseph Biden, who's gearing up for a run for the White House in '08, says the report on Iraq issued by the Baker-Hamilton Commission will be a touchstone for the hearings, which he says will probably last six to eight weeks.

Senator JOSEPH BIDEN (Democrat, Delaware) And we're going to bring in every reasonable person we can find - left, right and center, military, civilian and government - to discuss elements of this report and discuss what alternatives there may be beyond or included within the report.

WELMA: Biden's pushing a plan that would allow for much greater local control over security in Iraq's Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish regions as long as oil revenues are shared equitably.

Sen. BIDEN: But the real hard, hard question is, what is the political consensus that will be arrived at among the Iraqis? And if they do not arrive at one, all the king's horses, all the king's men, all the international conferences of the world will be for not.

WELNA: The Senate's 4th national security-related committee is Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs. And it's likely to be the most cooperative with the Bush administration. Its new chairman will be Joseph Lieberman, the former Connecticut Democrat who was reelected this year as an independent.

It was Lieberman who first proposed creating the Department of Homeland Security, and thus has a paternal interest in its success. Lieberman says he and outgoing Republican chair Susan Collins are of the same mind about the panel's priorities.

Senator JOSEPH LIEBERMAN (Democrat, Connecticut): The only thing, in my opinion, that's going to change on our committees is that we're going to be sitting in different chairs and have different titles, because she and I have worked very well together on nonpartisan or bipartisan basis. So we'll continue that.

WELNA: Lieberman still staunchly supports President Bush's decision to invade Iraq, which puts him at odds with most of the Senate Democrats he promises to caucus with. On the final day Congress was in session, Lieberman called a press conference to propose forming a kind of war cabinet, in which leaders from both parties on relevant committees would meet periodically with administration officials to, in his words, work together with the president to achieve success in Iraq.

Sen. LIEBERMAN: Look the fact is that over the course of the Iraq War, too much of the policy discussion has occurred in partisan political press conferences, dueling press conferences. This is an attempt to say that we all have a common interest here. We may have different opinions but we have a common interest in our national security. And the best way to advance it is to force us to get together in a room on a regular basis and talk about it.

WELNA: It's not clear how many of Lieberman's colleagues will heed his call for bipartisanship on national security, especially as it pertains to Iraq. Asked about Lieberman's war cabinet proposal, incoming Armed Services chair, Levin, replied the more bipartisan consultations and discussions, the better. But there's something that he wants more.

Sen. LEVIN: The most important thing that has to happen, the most important change which needs to occur is for the president for the first time to engage in real consultations with the Congress, including the Democrats in the Congress.

WELNA: The first test, Levin says, will be if President Bush meets with Congressional leaders from both parties before announcing his plans for a new direction in Iraq.

David Welna, NPR News.

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