After years of playing a marginal role in the Iraq war, congressional Democrats plan to move quickly next month to assert more control and undercut any White House effort to increase troop levels.
As President Bush prepares to outline his plan for Iraq in a major speech in the next few weeks, Democratic leaders will counter with weeks of oversight hearings, summoning military officers, administration officials and foreign policy experts to Capitol Hill.
The Democratic plans put Congress on a collision course with Bush over the direction of the nearly 4-year-old war. And they signal a new phase in a war that had been directed almost exclusively by the White House with little dissent from the GOP-controlled Capitol.
Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), the incoming chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, said Tuesday that he intended to call key administration officials, including Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, to testify at as many as a dozen hearings.
At the same time, the chairmen of both chambers' armed services committees and of the House International Relations Committee also plan to hold hearings.
"I hope the president and his people will listen," Biden said.
Biden, who was elected to the Senate during the Vietnam War and who is planning a 2008 presidential run, has been among the most outspoken critics of Bush's Iraq policies; on Tuesday, he called any increase in troops "the absolute wrong strategy."
A new tone in Washington
The hearing plans of Biden and the other committee chairmen highlight how much the political landscape in Washington has changed as a more critical Democratic Congress moves to directly challenge the president's management of the war.
Democrats won control of Congress in an election that turned on voters' unhappiness with the war. But Democrats have struggled for years to articulate an alternative to the Bush administration's policies.
As recently as last year, when Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.) called for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, many in the party agonized over whether that position would permanently tar Democrats as weak. But as discontent with the war has grown, sapping Bush's popularity, Democratic lawmakers have become increasingly outspoken.
And senior party leaders now appear to be uniting behind the call for a phased withdrawal of U.S. forces, a position that was bolstered by the release this month of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group's report.
The report did not set a specific timetable for withdrawing troops but did suggest numerous changes in the administration's policies, including more diplomatic engagement with Iraq's neighbors, another prescription embraced by congressional Democrats.
"Democrats and the bipartisan Iraq Study Group have both laid down a roadmap for the president to begin the withdrawal of American troops from the civil war in Iraq," incoming Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said last week. "It is now up to the president to follow that course."
Until now, however, Democratic lawmakers had few forums for their complaints and suggestions besides the Sundaymorning political talk shows.
With control of both chambers of Congress, the party will have the power to schedule hearings, subpoena documents and put conditions on how the administration spends money on the war in Iraq.
On Tuesday, a Bush spokesman would say only that the president recognized the "oversight role" of Congress.
"We hope they will use this oversight role in an appropriate fashion," Deputy Press Secretary Scott Stanzel said from Crawford, Texas, where the president is spending the Christmas holiday. "That's what the American people expect -- for both sides to work together for the common good."
Bush has met with the new Democratic leaders but thus far has shown little inclination to accept their counsel on the war.
Rather than talk of reducing the number of U.S. soldiers in Iraq, the White House has focused in the weeks since the release of the Iraq Study Group report on a temporary increase in troops that proponents say will help control the growing sectarian violence.
Senior congressional Democrats, including Biden, have attacked that plan, arguing that beginning a phased withdrawal is the best way to force Iraqis to take responsibility for halting the violence between Sunnis and Shiites.
As he outlined his scheduled hearings in a Tuesday conference call with the media, Biden expressed hope that by airing more viewpoints on Iraq, congressional leaders, particularly Republicans, could persuade the president to reconsider the idea of deploying more soldiers.
"If we can, out of those hearings, generate some bipartisan consensus in the Senate, then he may very well listen to some of ... my Republican colleagues who, I believe, share my great concern," Biden said.
A number of GOP senators -- including Susan Collins of Maine and Norm Coleman of Minnesota, who are up for reelection in 2008 -- have expressed skepticism about the so-called surge in troops.
Only 12% of Americans back a troop increase, compared with 52% who prefer a timetable for withdrawal, a recent Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll found.
The roster of witnesses
Biden said he planned to call retired diplomats, military officers and academics, in addition to Rice, before his committee. He said he was unsure whether he would summon former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.
On the House side, Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Burlingame) is planning to call the lead authors of the Iraq Study Group report -- former Secretary of State James A. Baker III and former Rep. Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.) -- to appear before his International Relations Committee.
And House Armed Services Committee Chairman Ike Skelton (D-Mo.) last week promised a series of oversight hearings aimed at uncovering and correcting abuses in the war effort.
"Asking the tough questions -- 'Why did this happen? Why did you make a decision to do this or that?' -- that does influence behavior," Skelton said.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) has said he plans several January hearings.
The flood of congressional hearings next month will probably shed unfavorable light on the way the Bush administration has prosecuted the war in Iraq.
But Biden acknowledged that, short of cutting off funding, Congress has limited ability to compel the White House to dramatically change course.
Though Congress has in the past used its power over the budget to challenge the foreign policies of presidents -- including cutting funding to the government of South Vietnam in the mid-'70s -- thus far no leading Democrat has called for withholding money for military operations in Iraq.
"We should not exaggerate the ability of the United States Foreign Relations Committee or the Congress to get a president to act in a manner in which the Congress thinks is more rational or more appropriate," Biden said Tuesday. "There's nothing the United States Congress can do by a piece of legislation to alter the conduct of a war that a president decides to pursue.
"This is President Bush's war," he said.
Times staff writer James Gerstenzang contributed to this report.