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Bush must ‘justify’ surge, Pelosi says

Times Staff Writer

Democratic congressional leaders, asserting their new majorities in the House and the Senate, said Sunday that President Bush’s plan for a new direction in Iraq would face scrutiny on Capitol Hill.

“It’s not an open-ended commitment anymore,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) said on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”

The president, who has been holding extensive discussions with his war Cabinet and has reshuffled military leadership, is expected to announce a change in strategy soon, perhaps Wednesday.

He is considering sending at least 20,000 more troops to help establish order in Baghdad, a course that Pelosi and new Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) called unacceptable in a letter they sent to Bush on Friday.

The two called instead for a phased withdrawal of U.S. troops, starting in four to six months.

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But the Democratic leaders also acknowledged that they had a limited ability to prevent the White House from adding forces. Any effort to block funding would expose them to charges of not supporting the troops. And since Congress authorized the use of force in Iraq, placing restraints on that approval could be unconstitutional.

Pelosi emphasized that Congress would not cut off funding for U.S. forces now in Iraq, and said that Democrats supported the president’s proposal to increase the overall size of the Army and the Marine Corps.

But, she added, when Bush submits a budget request, “we want to see a distinction between what is there to support the troops who are there now” and what he needs to send more to the combat zone.

“If the president wants to add to this mission, he is going to have to justify it,” Pelosi said. “And this is new for him because, up until now, the Republican Congress has given him a blank check.”

Any request for additional funding, she said, “will receive the harshest scrutiny.”

Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, acknowledged that Bush, as commander in chief, had the constitutional authority to order more U.S. troops to Iraq.

It would be unconstitutional, Biden said on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” for Congress to “micromanage the war” by putting a cap on troop strength after authorizing the use of force.

Calling the proposal for a rapid influx of forces “a tragic mistake,” he said, “As a practical matter, there’s no way to say, ‘Mr. President, stop.’ ”

In his speech, Bush is also expected to propose a jobs program, at a cost of as much as $1 billion, to employ young Iraqis who otherwise might join the insurgency. The plan also will include proposals for increased economic aid that would further increase the total bill.

Various aspects of Bush’s Iraq policy will be examined by House and Senate committees over the next few weeks, several new Democratic chairmen said.

Biden, who confirmed Sunday that he would be running for president in 2008, said his committee, in a four-week series of hearings starting Tuesday, would ask “experts from every perspective” to discuss what options remain in Iraq.

Rep. David R. Obey (D-Wis.) said on ABC’s “This Week” that his House Appropriations Committee would “scrub” the president’s requests for money for both a troop buildup and economic development.

Obey said he supported such aid earlier in the conflict, but the money was never fully spent because of the violence in Iraq.

“I am rather dubious that they’ll be able to do it this time as well,” Obey said.

Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said on the same program that during a week of hearings starting Feb. 6 he intended to focus on waste and corruption among private contractors in Iraq, along with those hired for security in the U.S. and Hurricane Katrina cleanup.

“Only a small part of the money spent in Iraq has been audited,” he said, “but what we’ve seen is very, very frightening.”

Several Republicans have also criticized the notion of a troop increase, questioning whether U.S. forces should take on a task that Iraq’s own government has been reluctant or unable to perform.

Even Rep. Roy Blunt of Missouri, a member of the House GOP leadership, said on CNN’s “Late Edition,” “You can’t secure the future for a people who don’t want to secure their own future.”

But he urged members of Congress and the public to listen carefully to Bush’s final plan.

“I see this as one of the last chances for the Iraqi people to secure their future with us as a principal partner,” Blunt said.

On Saturday, Iraq’s prime minister, Nouri Maliki, announced a new effort to end bloodshed in Baghdad, using the Iraqi army rather than police officers.

His speech, to commemorate Iraqi Army Day, took place on a day when at least 71 corpses were found in the Baghdad streets, where Sunni insurgents and Shiite militias have operated with impunity.

Such levels of violence have led Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, to support “a surge in troops with a purpose,” joined with Iraqi military and political leaders “to control this country.”

“Now’s the time to start over,” Graham said on “Meet the Press.” “If we don’t start over and do what we should’ve done in the beginning ... we will pay a heavy price.”

Graham said more U.S. forces working with Iraqi troops would offer “our best chance for victory.”

But he added, “It may not work.”

judy.pasternak@latimes.com


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