Congress reconvened following its month-long summer recess on Tuesday, opening a session that could force a re-defining moment for the US mission in Iraq.
Though the legislative body has almost a dozen appropriations bills to attend to, and a number of other pressing legislative matters to address, debate over the war in Iraq is certain to overwhelm all other priorities.
The heated passions the war excites were on display during the opening minutes of the Senate session Tuesday, as Capitol police escorted dozens of antiwar protesters from the spectator galley, after they stood up in silent protest at the first mention of Iraq.
While the Republican leadership has urged that Petraeus's appearance on the Hill next Monday be the starting point for discussion on the next step in Iraq, Democratic leaders have stacked the first week's schedule with hearings designed to broaden the sources of input on the conflict.
This week Congressional committees will hold at least four separate hearings on the GAO's Iraq report, which determined that Iraq has failed most of the expected benchmarks for political progress. Two hearings will invite Marine Gen. James Jones to report on training and capabilities of the Iraqi security forces, and a joint House armed services and foreign affairs committee event Thursday will discuss “Beyond the September Reports: What’s Next for Iraq?”
For those members who used the prospect of the September reporting to help the White House delay Democratic initiatives to legislate a new direction in Iraq policy, Senate Majority leader Harry Reid issued a reminder: “Now that time has come and every objective assessment of the president’s strategy has shown that it has failed to deliver the political solution it promised. I am willing and ready to help my Republican colleagues keep their word by working in a bipartisan way to change course in Iraq.”
Under these circumstances, it seems highly unlikely Congress will be able to "lower the political temperature" in Washington, as Senate Minority leader Mitch McConnell requested in his opening statement Tuesday.
While urging increased cooperation, the Republican leader's statement indicated how estranged the parties have become on Iraq, saying Congress will "have reason to hope" for a more cooperative legislative strategy as "more Democrats have the courage to acknowledge the good news as well as the bad news in Iraq."
With so many funding bills requiring attention, and the fiscal year coming to a close at the end of September, the prospects are high that Congress will be required to pass a continuing resolution to keep the government running while the appropriations for next year are finalized.