As Congress returns Tuesday, the main arena in the domestic battle over the Iraq war will switch from living rooms to hearing rooms.
All through the August break, anti-war groups spent millions of dollars on television ads and mobilized activists across the country to put pressure on vulnerable Republicans in Congress to break with President Bush and force an end to the Iraq war.
In September, they’ll find out whether the money and effort will pay dividends.
So far, leadership aides in both parties say there are not clear signs that a months-long stalemate, largely on party lines, has broken — a standoff that has given Bush latitude to continue his policies even as polls show the war becoming steadily more unpopular.
Democrats hoping to impose a change of course on the administration will have an early public relations advan-tage this week.
Hearings Tuesday and Wednesday will highlight a General Accounting Office report saying that the Iraqi gov-ernment has failed to meet most of the 18 benchmarks set by Congress to measure progress toward security and stability. And retired Marine Gen. James L. Jones will testify on Thursday. He chaired a congressionally man-dated commission that officials say has made a skeptical appraisal of the extent of progress in Iraq.
The administration’s pushback will come next week, with a long-awaited report by the top U.S. commander in Iraq, Army Gen. David Petraeus, and U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker. Petraeus has signaled that he believes the administration’s latest troop “surge” has produced military gains and should be continued to give Iraq more time to achieve political stability.
War supporters on Capitol Hill said they believe the military and administration have cobbled together enough positive or ambiguous indicators to thwart efforts to mandate a rapid troop drawdown.
Politically, the two sides are engaged in what one senior administration official called a “war of cherry-picking” as Republicans try to highlight signs of progress, however isolated or sluggish, and Democrats try to draw atten-tion to the bleak overall outlook without looking grudging or defeatist.
The efforts on both sides take place amid what is so far unknown: Will a summer of intense grass-roots activity on the war yield a harvest in the fall?
Anti-war groups point to the shifts of such prominent Republicans as Sen. John Warner (Va.), who recently urged the administration to accelerate a drawdown and bring at least 5,000 troops home by Christmas, as evi-dence that the political center has moved decisively away from Bush.
But Republican leadership aides say they are relieved that the home-front backlash against GOP lawmakers is not more severe. “Everyone thought we were going to come back from recess with our tails between our legs, but we’re in the same place if not better,” an official said.
While even many Republicans are expressing impatience with the war, the most prominent lawmaker to actu-ally reverse position was a Democrat — Rep. Brian Baird of Washington — who said Bush’s surge policy should be given more time.
Bush in the past has vetoed congressional efforts to force change on his Iraq policy and it seems clear he still has support to sustain vetoes. As one Senate Republican aide said: “No one has 67 votes for anything.”
But if anti-war groups cannot yet mandate policy, they amply demonstrated their ability last month to cause acute discomfort to lawmakers.
A coalition of anti-war groups billing itself as Americans Against Escalation in Iraq ran or is planning to run ads in several media markets. The group held 375 press events, distributed more than 30,400 yard signs and collected about 13,700 signed statements against the war. Its efforts were countered by a group called Freedom Watch, backed by former White House spokesman Ari Fleischer and other prominent Republicans, which spnt $15 million on pro-surge ads in more than 30 markets.
The anti-war coalition, which included religious activists as well as the prominent liberal group MoveOn, targeted about 60 Republicans. It put special emphasis on Republicans already feeling political pressures.
These include Rep. Tom Davis, whose Northern Virginia district in the Washington suburbs already is skeptical of the war. Davis is also hoping to replace Warner in the Senate.
He was one of the few Republicans willing to face anti-war advocates in an August town hall meeting. “Chicken hawk!” screamed a balding, middle-aged constituent in attendance. “How do you justify the continued waste of American lives, Tom?” spit another. Davis sighed and tried to explain his position.
In a telephone interview a week later, Davis said, “I have long passed feeling pressure from interest groups to vote a certain way,” he said. “My job is not to agree with everyone but to hear from everyone.”
But he acknowledged his own frustration at not seeing proposals that reflect his “nuanced” position — against Bush’s surge but also against a rapid drawdown that would leave Iraq even more dangerous than it is now.
“I never get to vote on anything that supports my views,” he said.
Little wonder Davis should worry. An overwhelming majority of Virginians named the war in Iraq as the most important political issue right now in a poll by the Washington Post/Kaiser Family Foundation/Harvard Univer-sity Survey Project. Most were against the war: 60 percent said it was not worth fighting, and 58 percent said that the U.S. goal of bringing stability to Iraq was no longer possible.
“I think the public pressure has been evident this summer,” said Moira Mack, spokeswoman for Americans Against Escalation in Iraq. “It’s become quite clear to these politicians when they were home over August recess and July 4 that their constituents wanted to see the troops come home. Our efforts have been to amplify that.”
But anti-war groups have to worry about more than just Republicans. There remains an important strategic split among anti-war forces over whether to draw firm lines or seek compromises. Congressional Democrats have so far failed to attract more than a handful of Republicans to their efforts to withdraw troops from Iraq.
House Democrats briefly considered voting on a measure in late July that had the support of dozens of Republicans, but they decided to drop the idea under strong pressure from progressives. The proposal introduced by Reps. Neil Abercrombie (D-Hawaii) and John Tanner (D-Tenn.) would have required the president to report on the status.
Several members of the House Democratic leadership left open the possibility that they would again bring up a broadly bipartisan war bill even though liberal Democrats remain firmly opposed.
“It wouldn’t surprise me,” said Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.), who serves as assistant to the speaker. “No decision has been made yet by leadership about what to put on the floor. We’re going to have to review the GAO report, what we’re hearing from the various military sources, the reports back from members and how much of the Petraeus writings are actually his own.”
Don Stewart, communications director for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), said his side is happy for a battle that pits the GAO report versus a uniformed military commander. “There are a lot of reports that are going to say a lot of things. But someone in Peoria doesn’t know what the GAO is, but they know who Petraeus is.”
Jim Manley, senior communications adviser to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said internal differences should not obscure the main point: “Democrats are absolutely committed to changing the course in Iraq and bringing our troops home.”
Josephie Hearn contributed to this story.