WASHINGTON — An increasingly anxious Congress has summoned Bush administration officials to testify this week on their plans for quelling violence in Iraq and for handing power over to Iraqis by June 30.
Three congressional committees have scheduled hearings that Republican lawmakers hope will produce information they need to explain President Bush's Iraq policy to increasingly restive constituents. Democrats say the hearings will provide a forum for criticizing what they say have been the administration's missteps.
"The country is polarized," said Rep. James A. Leach (R-Iowa), who had voted against the decision to go to war. "The issue to me is how we proceed from here."
"I think there certainly is a nervousness because of the events of the last few weeks," said Republican lobbyist Vin Weber, a former Minnesota congressman, referring to surging violence and rising U.S. casualties in Iraq. "Members of Congress have to go home. They talk to the members of the local news media. Sometimes there's somebody in or near their district who has been killed."
Still, he said, "I don't believe the fundamental confidence of the Republicans on the Hill in the administration has been shaken."
Because Congress is controlled by Republicans who remain loyal to Bush, the proceedings are unlikely to produce the sort of dramatic testimony heard at the Sept. 11 commission's hearings earlier this month. No administration official is expected to offer an apology along the lines of that given to the families of Sept. 11 victims and the American people by Richard Clarke, the former counterterrorism official in the Bush administration.
But the hearings may force the administration to provide a more detailed picture of its plans in Iraq and may bring to its attention outside ideas for sharing the burdens of war and reconstruction.
In two days of hearings beginning Tuesday, the House and Senate Armed Services committees will hear from Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz, considered the intellectual architect of the war; Marc Grossman, undersecretary of State for political affairs; and Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which plans three days of hearings starting Tuesday, will question an array of former government officials and academic experts on postwar reconstruction efforts. Committee staffers said they had had a hard time, however, getting senior administration officials to appear. Wolfowitz reportedly had agreed to appear before the committee but then declined the invitation, according to a committee source.
Officials are likely to face a barrage of questions about the administration's decision to allow the United Nations to take the lead in selecting an interim Iraqi government; about its plans for quelling a revolt among followers of the Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr; and about its strategy for putting down resistance in the so-called Sunni Triangle, west of Baghdad.
"There are tens of thousands of patriotic Americans who will go to bed tonight with a pit in their stomach," said Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, in a speech Thursday on postwar policy in Iraq. He said these Americans were "torn between their instinct to blindly support our president and a nagging doubt that he does not have a workable plan for either victory or to bring their sons and daughters home safely."
The sessions will be Congress' first public hearings on the planned June 30 transition, when the U.S. administration is scheduled to hand over power to the Iraqis.
Sen. Richard G. Lugar, the Indiana Republican who is chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has been under growing pressure from congressional Democrats to hold hearings on the administration's plans.
Lugar, one of the most respected foreign-policy experts in Washington, has been faulted by Democrats for failing to more forcefully challenge the White House on policies that Lugar has said publicly he believes are flawed. At the same time, he is under pressure from Republicans not to give a platform to witnesses who might criticize the president in the middle of an election campaign.
"Had I remained chairman of the committee, we would have been having on a continuous basis extensive hearings on every aspect of our involvement in Iraq," Biden said in an interview. Asked why he thought Lugar, whom he described as a "first-rate guy," had not done so, Biden paused for a long moment before replying: "He's in a tough spot."
Lugar was on vacation last week, and could not be reached for comment. But one of his aides said the senator scheduled the hearings because the administration had not consulted adequately with Congress.