Congress Braces for a Bruising September

A contentious debate on the future of Iraq is in the offing.

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Summer may be coming to a close, but expect fireworks when Congress returns in September. Lawmakers are preparing for a lineup of passionate debates, hearings, and votes on the Iraq war when they return after Labor Day. In addition to debate over the president's proposed $145 billion war spending bill, the House will hold hearings next week on two new key reports on the military and political situations in Iraq. And both chambers will be anxiously awaiting the midmonth testimony by Gen. David Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker.

"Expect a lot of noise on Iraq in September," said one Democratic congressional aide.

Pending reports by the Government Accountability Office and an independent commission of military experts are expected to paint a negative picture of the situation in Iraq. Democrats are hoping that those reports—combined with the testimony from Petraeus and Crocker—will deliver such bad news that congressional Republicans will be forced to change course on Iraq.

Lawmakers say Bush's war spending bill could grow to $180 billion as other costs, such as adding mine-resistant vehicles and additional aircraft, are factored in. Democrats are expected to add a number of amendments to the spending bill, including the contentious proposals to withdraw troops. This prospect has led to discussions about the possibility of breaking the bill into smaller pieces; that scenario could result in numerous votes on Iraq, with potentially embarrassing consequences for the administration.

Under pressure from antiwar Democrats, House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman John Murtha, a Pennsylvania Democrat, is considering an amendment that would require the withdrawal of most troops from Iraq within six months. Murtha supports immediately ending operations in Iraq, but he acknowledges that, logistically, it would likely take a full year to withdraw most of the 159,000 troops now deployed. Getting troops out of Iraq would also be very expensive, he said, and likely increase overall Iraq outlays even more.

Meanwhile, the Senate will debate its own troop withdrawal amendment to the Iraq spending bill. Whether such proposals could be approved by the entire Congress—and whether they'd face a prolonged veto fight with the White House—is, for the moment, unclear. But with Sen. John Warner, Republican of Virginia, on the Senate Armed Services Committee now calling for troop withdrawals, Democrats are hopeful that they'll get enough votes.

Democrats worry that the White House will prevent Petraeus from testifying openly before Congress.

"If the president is going to continue to ask...taxpayers to spend $10 billion each month to fund this war," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, "then those closest to the situation on the ground must give Congress...a frank and honest account of this war free of White House political spin."

Democrats might use the war funding bill as leverage in the debate over appropriations and their desire to add billions more in domestic spending this fall. Many Dems are casting their proposed domestic spending increases as modest, in comparison to war spending. "Instead of spending billions on the war in Iraq," said House Appropriations Chair David Obey, Democrat of Wisconsin, "[my] bill begins to make the long-term investments in areas like healthcare, education, and medical research that will prepare us for the kind of future we want."

With the Senate still needing to pass appropriations bills, it's sure to be a busy fall. Yet with Iraq taking center stage, a temporary domestic spending bill is likely to be needed in late September because the Senate is not likely to catch up with the House and finish all action on all appropriation bills by the new fiscal year.