Congress is Back but the President Isn't

A less confident president — or perhaps a more hopeful one — would be on his way back to Washington today.  But George W. Bush – having visited Iraq yesterday to get first-hand reports from US Commander Gen. David Petraeus and Amb. Ryan Crocker — is off to a summit in Australia.  As odd as it seems, continuing the trip may be the best political decision President Bush has made in a very long time.  

Next week Petraeus and Crocker will present their reports on Iraq to Congress.  What they say, and how Republicans react, will set the terms by which President Bush will spend his remaining sixteen months in office.  No president could afford to be surprised by such as report, so the President had to go to Iraq to hear — first-hand — a forecast of what the general and the ambassador would say.  

It seems a strange week for the president to be gone.  Congressional politicking between yesterday’s Iraq visit and the Petraeus/Crocker reports next week will be as important and intense as any in the history of Mr. Bush’s administration.  These reports will be a pivotal moment in the war, when increasingly fractious Republicans either get back together or fragment themselves looking for ways to divorce themselves from the president’s policies.    

But for Mr. Bush to have returned to stroke Congressional egos and risk selective leaks of what Petraeus and Crocker will probably say would have politicized the reports, and that neither the President nor the nation could afford.

As delicate as the Republican balance is, there’s no danger that the Democrats will achieve even that fragile a unity.  The best news for the president is that the Congressional Dems, returning today from the August recess, are in even worse shape than the Republicans.

How many times have we heard the Dems call President Bush an unpopular lame duck? (There’s no denying there’s some truth in that.  As Bob Novak pointed out the other day, Republican presidential candidates barely admit Mr. Bush exists.)

The Dems aren’t holding an aces-over-kings full house, either. Congressional approval ratings are a full ten percent below the president’s.  At this writing, has Mr. Bush’s approval rating average at 32.6% and Congress at 22.2%.  Who’s the lame duck, and who’s just lame?

Coming back from their vacation, members of Congress have to wriggle back into the dirty shirts they threw on the floor as they left.  

In the House, Democrats will have to brace themselves for the September 30 preliminary report of the “Stolen Vote” select committee.  House Republican leaders will announce today who their members of the committee will be. Minority Leader John Boehner and Minority Whip Roy Blunt won’t be appointing their most milquetoast-ish members.  And with the select committee empowered to issue subpoenas, there will — according to House sources – be some fireworks almost immediately.  If the Dems fight too hard, the House could be tied up on that issue alone.

Though Speaker Pelosi is planning to reopen the just-passed FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) amendments with a splashy hearing tomorrow before Cong. John Conyers’ (D-Mi) Judiciary Committee, the House is going to have a tough time producing what the hard-core libs demand: altogether shackling to the FISA court the President’s ability to gather intelligence.  House Dems are as badly split as their Senate counterparts over Iraq, and will be able to do little more than score media soundbites on FISA.  

Pelosi will go forward with several pieces of legislation (including the FISA revisions) that – if combined – could be titled the “terrorist bill of rights.”  They want to grant court access to inmates of the Guantanamo Bay detention facility (effectively repealing legislation they joined in earlier).  That, like the reopening of FISA, will not even get through the Senate.  Pelosi is likely to finish the year without anything to show for it. Especially on Iraq.

Many House Dems – ranging from Washington’s Brian Baird to Minnesota’s Keith Ellison – have spoken out on the favorable results of the surge strategy and Gen. Petraeus’ counterinsurgency effort.  Last week Baird said that while gains are, “still precarious,” the “situation on the ground in Iraq is improving in multiple and important ways.”  Baird said, “I do not know the details of what the September report will contain, but I trust and respect Gen. David Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker.  I have seen firsthand the progress they have made, and I firmly believe we must give them the time and resources they need to succeed.”  So much for Senate Dems’ strategy of discrediting Petraeus.

Senate Dems are bolder, and more likely to succeed.  Before last week, Majority Leader Harry Reid refused to accommodate the concerns of Republicans, insisting on a firm withdrawal date and a drawdown schedule.  Republicans (such as Warner, Hagel and Maine’s Susan Collins) who were willing to break with the president were rebuffed.  Now, as Reid said, he is willing to compromise.  

Democrats’ Iraq proposals linger.  The Biden-Levin plan calls for commencement of withdrawal within 120 days of passage and completion by March 2008.  Reid’s own legislation, the Reid-Feingold plan, would stop all funding of troops operating in Iraq beginning April 2008.  What Reid wants now is a “Reid-Hagel” or “Levin-Warner” withdrawal plan to maneuver other wavering Republicans into join in the Dems’ plans to abandon Iraq.

By continuing to Australia, the President has relieved Petraeus and Crocker of the burden of his politics.  The president has left the Democrats to bite and scratch and break each others’ arms in trying to politicize the general and the ambassador.  In the media frenzy of the coming week, damage can be done.  But only to those who partake in it. 


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