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Congress returns, ready for confrontation

Democrats target war, domestic issues

WASHINGTON - After failing to push through their most important priorities in the last congressional session, Democratic leaders return to the capital today feeling increasing pressure to confront President Bush on the war in Iraq, terrorism, and domestic policy.

Many Democratic senators and representatives spent the long, hot August recess listening to voters and party activists back home who are enraged that the party did not find a way to rein in a deeply unpopular war after taking control on Capitol Hill last fall. The combination of conservative opposition and the disappointment of many liberals has pushed Congress's approval rating lower even than Bush's in most polls.

Many Democrats are preparing to take combative stances on the war and domestic issues, according to members of Congress and aides to senior party leaders. Among the most significant battles on the horizon, aides to House and Senate leaders say, will be responding to General David Petraeus's highly anticipated report on the troop surge in Iraq due next week, vetting Bush's nominee to replace Alberto Gonzales, and pushing to expand health insurance for low-income children.

"Voters want the Congress to be very aggressive in confronting the Bush administration, and that is what the Democrats intend on doing," said Representative Edward Markey, a Malden Democrat who is a senior party leader and confidant of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Bush, too, seemed to be gearing up for a season of confrontation yesterday during his surprise visit to Iraq, when he said decisions about troop levels "will be based on a calm assessment by our military commanders on the conditions on the ground - not a nervous reaction by Washington politicians to poll results in the media."

The Democratic response to his upbeat take on the war was defiant. "Our military cannot solve Iraq's problems or end Iraq's civil war," Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts said in a statement. "As long as our military presence in Iraq is open-ended, Iraq's leaders are unlikely to make the essential compromises for a political solution. It's time for change. There is no more time for promises of success around the corner."

But it is not clear if the Democratic legislators will have any more ammunition than they did in the last session, given that they hold such a slim majority, and in light of the muddy picture that is emerging on whether security or the political situation has improved in Iraq in recent months.

"It's not going to be pretty," said Stephen Hess, a political analyst and professor at George Washington University. "I see lots of noise and speechifying [to come], but I don't see a breakthrough."

While the Iraq debate is likely to overshadow all else, the party plans to introduce legislation restoring the habeas corpus rights of terrorism suspects and to hold new hearings questioning the president's domestic wiretapping program.

Party leaders also plan to pursue a number of major domestic policy priorities, any of which could lead to a showdown with Bush, including providing children's health insurance, increasing student financial aid - two issues Kennedy has long pushed for - and boosting energy efficiency, a priority for Markey.

And Senate confirmation hearings on a new attorney general will give Democrats a stage to make a case that the administration has abused its power by wrongly firing US attorneys and hiding information from Congress.

"It gives them an opportunity to score points with their base," said Stuart Rothenberg, author of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report. "They can beat the stuffing out of who the president chooses, even if they like that person."

When voters gave the Democrats control of Congress in last fall's midterm elections, party leaders said they believed their mandate was clear: End the Iraq war. And the House has voted multiple times to set deadlines for troop withdrawals.

But in the Senate, Democrats have only a 51 to 49 majority, far from the 60 votes needed to prevent a filibuster and the 67 needed to override a presidential veto. All efforts to force a troop withdrawal have failed, and the party will have to count on substantial Republican defections to make any further progress this fall.

But many liberal voters, whose passion helped the Democrats take Congress, are seething, both over Democrats' willingness to compromise with Bush on war funding after failing to override his veto of a troop-withdrawal plan last spring, and over their decision before leaving for recess to allow some forms of domestic spying.

"Congress has totally missed the boat," said Wilbur Jenkins, 81, a World War II veteran and retired city employee in Manchester, N.H., at an August house party there for Senator Hillary Clinton.

"They've had several opportunities to pass meaningful legislation [on Iraq], and they've rolled over," added Jenkins, who volunteered last fall to help elect New Hampshire's freshman Democratic Representative Carol Shea-Porter.

The poll numbers reflect his disappointment. Last month, the Gallup Poll found that Bush's approval rating was a dismal 32 percent, but Congress's was far worse, 18 percent.

Influential liberal bloggers have also lashed out against the Democratic leadership in Congress. The ACLU is mocking Pelosi and Senate majority leader Harry Reid, portraying them as sheep in an Internet ad about Democrats' greatest shame of the year, passage of a six-month extension and expansion for Bush's warrantless wiretapping program.

"Bush wanted more power to eavesdrop on ordinary Americans. And we just followed along," one of the wooly creatures says in an Internet ad. "I guess that's why they call us the Democratic leadersheep."

The Democratic National Committee was concerned enough about liberal criticism that it produced its own Internet ad highlighting the boost in the minimum wage and a few other of Congress's accomplishments, while blaming the president for lack of movement on Iraq.

"It's Democrats taking the country in a new direction," the narrator declares as the screen shows smiling children holding up an American flag. "Americans want change. Tell George Bush it's time to listen."

But the Democrats need to do better than that in this session, or risk alienating liberal voters, said Julian Zelizer, professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. The pressure will only increase, he said, as the presidential election gets closer.

"They don't want the story to be the same war and the same nonexit strategy," he said.

Many observers expect Petraeus to report that Bush's "surge" in troop levels has reduced violence in certain parts of Iraq, and to advise Congress that increased troop levels must continue for the political situation to stabilize. However, a report by the Government Accountability Office will be formally delivered to Congress today, saying the Iraqi government has met only three of 18 political and military benchmarks set by Congress.

Representative Michael Capuano, a Somerville Democrat, said he has little faith in Petraeus's report, since "he is the general who supported the surge."

But Capuano has higher hopes that some of his Republican colleagues will have a change of heart after getting an earful from voters back home over the August recess.

"Our leadership will keep trying to come up with something the Senate can adopt," he said. "My hope is that some members will have heard from their constituents."

The Democrats won't map out the specifics of their Iraq strategy until after Petraeus testifies, but Reid told the Washington Post last week that he is ready to compromise with moderate Republicans in order to curb troop levels in Iraq. Reid wants to set next spring as a deadline for withdrawal, and last session he refused to compromise with Republicans who had soured on the war but were not willing to set a timetable for full withdrawal.

No matter how aggressive the Democrats are this term, some analysts said, the outcome in Iraq and elsewhere will depend on how many Republicans are persuaded to join them. "It all comes down to the filibuster," Zelizer said. "The real question is, is there enough pressure on 10 or 15 Republicans in the Senate to vote for some change?"

Marcella Bombardieri can be reached at bombardieri@globe.com.

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