WASHINGTON — California's Rep. Jim Costa will need plenty of patience at one of the week's most anticipated congressional hearings.
In theory, the Fresno Democrat's membership on the House Foreign Affairs Committee will give him a chance Wednesday to question Army Gen. David Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker about Iraq.
In practice, the afternoon-long hearing will be an endurance test that reveals more than the status of the ongoing Iraq war. It will also provide a warts-and-all guide to Capitol Hill, where a succinct question can be hard to find.
In September, the last time Petraeus and Crocker appeared on Capitol Hill together, Costa didn't get a chance to ask a question when the joint hearing of the House Foreign Affairs and Armed Services committees ended after about six hours.
"Sometimes, members use their time as an opportunity to spout their own wisdom," Costa said Monday. "It sometimes amazes me, when they don't take their five minutes to get off a couple of questions."
The three leading presidential contenders — Democratic Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama and Republican Sen. John McCain — are each returning from the campaign trail for the high-profile hearings. If the past is any guide, they will frame questions with a broader audience in mind.
"It's not only the Iraqi government that, in my view, has failed to pursue a coherent strategy; I think our own has as well," Clinton, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, declared during her allotted question period in September.
This week, senators will get first shot at Petraeus and Crocker, with hearings scheduled for Tuesday; House hearings come Wednesday.
Generally, lawmakers arriving at the start of a hearing ask questions in order of seniority. Junior committee members can sometimes wait hours while their more senior colleagues exhaust the list of common questions. In the meantime, camera crews pack up and leave. The hearing itself may be called for darkness before everyone bats.
Typically, the committee's two senior members talk for up to 10 minutes each. The subsequent questioning alternates between Democratic and Republican lawmakers, each allotted five minutes.
Costa is ranked 23 out of 27 in seniority among Foreign Affairs Committee Democrats, and he led a brief congressional delegation to Iraq last month. But when Wednesday's hearing takes place, he'll have 22 Democrats and 21 Republicans ahead of him in seniority.
Added up, Costa can anticipate waiting at least four hours before he gets his five minutes in the spotlight. He's hoping to ask about the recent spike in Iraq violence and a controversial Iraqi military offensive into Basra, among other areas.
"Hopefully, there will be a chance to get to people a little bit down the line (of seniority)," Costa said.
Seniority won't be the only convention followed this week.
Expect fulsome expressions of gratitude toward the heavily decorated Petraeus, even from anti-war lawmakers The transcript of September's hearing, for instance, shows that at least 15 separate lawmakers took time to, as Rep. Elliot Engel, D-N.Y., put it, "thank you for your service."
Expect questions that resemble speeches.
In September, for instance, Rep. Bob Wexler, D-Fla., opined against the war for five minutes before ending with a rhetorical question. Wexler used 430 words to express his opinion and 30 words to ask, essentially, "How many more" Americans will die in Iraq?
Expect, as well, demonstrations both inside and outside the Rayburn House Office Building hearing room.
Modesto resident Zac Applequist, an Army veteran of Afghanistan, is among several hundred Vets for Freedom members rallying Tuesday on Capitol Hill in support of Petraeus and Crocker. Police, meanwhile, are preparing to eject anti-war demonstrators who may disrupt the hearings, as happened last fall.