WASHINGTON -- 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 own 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, academics and foreign policy experts to Capitol Hill.
The Democratic plans put Congress on a collision course with Bush over the direction of the nearly four-year-old war. And they signal a new phase in a war that has been directed almost exclusively by the White House with little dissent from a GOP-controlled Capitol.
Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, the incoming chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said yesterday that he intends 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 armed services committees and the House International Relations Committee also plan to hold hearings.
Biden, who was elected to the Senate during the Vietnam War and is planning a 2008 presidential run, has been among the most outspoken critics of Bush's Iraq policies. Yesterday, he called any increase in troops "the absolute wrong strategy."
His plan for hearings as well as those of the other committee chairmen highlight just how much the political landscape in Washington has changed.
Democrats took control of Congress after an election that turned on the electorate's unhappiness with the war. But Democrats have struggled for years to articulate an alternative to the Bush policies.
As recently as last year, when Rep. John P. Murtha, a Pennsylvania Democrat, called for the withdrawal of American 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 in their criticisms.
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 last month of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group's report.
The report did not set a specific timetable for withdrawing troops, but it did suggest numerous changes in the administration's policies, including more diplomatic engagement with Iraq's neighbors, another prescription being embraced by congressional Democrats.
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 fiercely attacked that plan, arguing instead that the best way to force Iraqis to take responsibility for halting the violence between Sunnis and Shiites is to begin a phased withdrawal.
Noam N. Levey writes for the Los Angeles Times.