On Capitol Hill, seniority rules

Times Staff Writer

Sen. Barack Obama may be a top contender for the Democratic presidential nomination, but at a much-anticipated Senate hearing on the Iraq war Tuesday, he was schooled in just how little that means.

Seizing a chance to deliver his critique of the war, the Illinois senator left himself only a few minutes to ask questions of the commander of all U.S. ground forces in Iraq and the U.S. ambassador to Baghdad.

And he got no sympathy from Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware -- the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and, as it happens, a rival for the Democratic nomination. Obama noted that he had “very little time to ask questions, and that’s unfortunate.”


Biden broke in: “That’s true, Senator.”

Far and away the biggest spectacle on Capitol Hill this week was the report on the Iraq war from Army Gen. David H. Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker. They appeared before two House committees on Monday and two Senate panels Tuesday, telling lawmakers that leaving the battlefield now would be a mistake.

But the 2008 campaign was also front and center: Of the 10 members of Congress who are running for president, six were behind the microphones, asking questions.

The hearings were a chance for them to reach a national audience without dipping into limited advertising budgets. They were also something of an equalizer; Obama’s charisma and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s celebrity might soak up all the attention in Iowa and New Hampshire, but on Capitol Hill, seniority rules.

As a comparatively junior member of the armed services committee, Clinton didn’t get to speak until several hours into Tuesday’s hearing. Iraq has proved a sensitive issue for her campaign. She voted in 2002 to authorize the use of U.S. military force in Iraq but now is calling for troops to be withdrawn.

When she addressed the general, her focus was not her own evolution on Iraq, but what she saw as a “contradiction” in his testimony.

She noted that in the morning, he had told Biden that if conditions in Iraq were unchanged in a year, he would be hard-pressed to recommend keeping up to 160,000 troops deployed. Yet when he was asked a similar question in the afternoon, he said he would have to consider what to do, Clinton said.

“General, don’t you think the American people deserve a very specific answer about what is expected from our country?” she asked.

Petraeus disagreed that his answers amounted to a contradiction. In any case, he repeated that he would be reluctant to advise staying the course absent any improvements.

Some candidates used the hearings to sharpen differences with opponents.

Throughout his campaign, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), another armed services committee member, has defended the unpopular war and the troop buildup ordered by President Bush.

In his remarks Tuesday, he maintained that the additional troops were responsible for improved security in Anbar province and chided colleagues who perceived it differently. “It’s astonishing the number of things people come up with,” McCain said.

Obama and Clinton took the opposite position, arguing that progress in Anbar was apparent before the buildup.

For the more obscure White House contenders, the hearings offered a rare chance to take center stage.

Rep. Duncan Hunter of El Cajon is a second-tier candidate in the Republican field but the top GOP member on the House Armed Services Committee.

As such, he was one of the first to speak on Monday, condemning an ad published that day in the New York Times mocking Petraeus. The ad, from the liberal interest group Move, was titled, “General Petraeus or General Betray us?” It is the kind of ad that is anathema to core Republican voters, whose support Hunter will need.

Hunter later asked Petraeus about the flow of military equipment from Iran into Iraq. As he spoke he was shown on cable TV in split screen, opposite the four-star general whose green uniform was bedecked with ribbons.

Still, the campaign pecking order proved inescapable.

At one point in Tuesday’s Senate hearings, proceedings nearly came to a stop when Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee, wandered over to Obama and knelt down to chat. A clutch of photographers turned away from Petraeus and furiously snapped pictures of presidential candidates past and present.