The Iraq Resolution: Just a First Step?

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Chip Somodevilla / Getty

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) testifies before the House Science and Technology Committee about her commitment to fighting global climate change in Washington, D.C., February 8, 2007.

House debate over what Democrats call an escalation of U.S. forces in Iraq officially began this afternoon. But the nonbinding resolution, expressing Congress's disapproval of President Bush's troop surge, is just the first step in the opposition party's plans to curtail some of the President's latitude to operate in Iraq.

The resolution is virtually certain to pass. About the only uncertainty is how many Republican members will vote for it. Most congressional observers predict somewhere between a dozen and two dozen Republicans will join the Democratic majority in passing the measure.

As the debate got under way, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi made clear that the resolution is just the first effort by Democrats to attach new fiscal restraints on an American military operation that is widely believed to have lost its way. "Let us be clear on one fundamental principle," Pelosi said. "We all support the troops." Then she added: "A vote of approval will set the stage for additional Iraq legislation which is set to come to the House floor."

Just what form the next measures will take remains uncertain, but a variety of fencing mechanisms are already under discussion. House appropriators are contemplating tying funds for the surge to the readiness of combat and support units back home that would deploy as part of the operation. There is growing evidence — and growing concern — that U.S. forces preparing to ship out are not sufficiently trained and equipped when they arrive in Iraq. There is also widening discussion among House Democrats of tying funds for the surge to more concrete benchmarks of action toward political reconciliation and military cooperation by the Iraqi government. But Democratic leaders have not yet agreed on what their next steps will be.

What they have agreed on, however, is much more muscular oversight of the Administration's conduct of the war, and it is easy to see the result of that decision every day in Washington. Already, in the first 30 days of the new Congress, Democrats in both houses have held 52 committee hearings on the conduct of the war — an average of more than two for every day the House has been in session since January 9. One House Democratic staffer described the move to kick the oversight up several notches as "a strategic decision."

The early round of debate on Tuesday included both searing indictments of the Administration's strategy in the Middle East and harsh criticism of the Democrats for clawing recklessly at the President's standing. "We are here because a series of irretrievable strategic mistakes," said Democrat Ike Skelton, chairman of the Armed Sevices Committee. Countered Pete Sessions, a Republican from Texas: "What this resolution is all about is to politically neuter the President of the United States. It is about trying to do something that is politics, not policy."

A final vote is expected by Friday; the Senate is expected to take up a version of the House's nonbinding resolution after its President's Day break next week.