WASHINGTON — Democrats in the House of Representatives on Wednesday intend to use hearings on Iraq to hammer home what they think is a key political point: that the expense of the Iraq war is making it harder for the American economy to rebound.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other House leaders are expected to use a closed-door caucus with her fellow Democrats on Wednesday morning to urge them to repeat that refrain when they question the top U.S. military commander in Iraq, Army Gen. David Petraeus, and the top American diplomat there, Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker.
"The trillion-dollar war in Iraq is damaging our economy by taking us deeper into debt," Pelosi said Tuesday in a statement.
The Democratic-dominated House Armed Services and Foreign Affairs committees are expected to spend the entire day questioning Petraeus and Crocker on developments in Iraq. On Tuesday, Senate Democrats provided a preview of how the party will try to tie Iraq to the economy.
"The amount of money we are spending is hemorrhaging our budget," said presidential candidate Barack Obama, D-Ill.
"I just think that there's a point in time, and it's now, when we need to find a way to make sure that Iraq is financing more of its own present and future rather than incurring those costs ourselves," added Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb.
Tying the war to the economy could be crucial for the Democrats in the run-up to November's elections. Polls show that the war remains deeply unpopular with the American public.
But it's slipped in importance for voters as the country's economy has declined. Linking the two would provide Democrats with a potent argument as they head into a presidential election where the presumed Republican nominee, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., is an unabashed proponent of a continued U.S. presence in Iraq.
Republicans are critical of Democrats' efforts to blame Iraq for the economy's doldrums.
"This latest argument from Democratic leaders smacks of political opportunism at its very worst," said House Republican leader John Boehner, R-Ohio.
Bush administration loyalists add that the costs incurred from the war — an estimated $600 billion so far — are necessary not only to rebuild Iraq but also to ensure the safety of the United States.
Crocker told senators Tuesday that the United States has ended its financing of major infrastructure projects in Iraq, such as construction of bridges and schools. At the White House, Press Secretary Dana Perino pointed out that Iraq is committing $350 million for aid to its battered cities. She charged that many Democrats are "playing politics" with the issue.
Pelosi, however, promised counterarguments.
"The Iraqis have a multibillion-dollar surplus," she said. "We have a several hundred billion-dollar deficit, and yet we are paying for the reconstruction of Iraq. They are not. And we are not meeting our infrastructure needs here in America."
The U.S. has spent an estimated $47 billion on Iraq reconstruction over the last five years. When the war began in March 2003, Pentagon officials said that thanks to a boost in oil revenue, Iraq soon would pay to rebuild itself.
"It is unconscionable that American taxpayers, paying a fortune for gasoline — some of which comes from Iraq, building up a huge surplus for Iraq, which the Iraqis are not spending — that the American taxpayers continue to spend billions of dollars on the reconstruction of Iraq," Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., said Tuesday at the Petraeus-Crocker hearings.
American funding for the Sons of Iraq, the U.S.-paid security forces who are supposed to police their local areas, also troubles many Democrats, as well as some Republicans.
"We're spending about $200 million a year paying these people twice the average salary you would make in Iraq," said Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., "and I'm trying to figure out how we get the Iraqi government to pay that price as opposed to the American taxpayer."
Petraeus explained Tuesday that Iraq's government is giving substantial help to the effort to fund the Sons of Iraq.
"I think we are seeing more and more and more burden-sharing, cost-sharing, if you will," he said.
McCaskill promised that she'll be watching closely. "There's no excuse that the people of Japan and Germany and Korea are helping pay, and the people of Iraq need to be doing the same thing," she said. "And if they refuse to, I think that would be a very illuminating point for the American people."
House Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel of Illinois made the party's point at a news conference last week:
"While we are building 6,700 schools in Iraq and training 60,000 teachers in Iraq, the president's budget here at home cuts funding for education and teacher-training programs and reading programs," he said.
Republicans say the issues are much more complex.
"If our nation abandoned efforts to stabilize Iraq, not only would terrorism follow our troops home," Boehner said, "but it would lead to chaos in the Middle East that would wreak havoc on our national and economic security as well."
ON THE WEB
Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz and Harvard professor Linda Bilmes, who co-wrote a book on the Iraq war, "The Three Trillion Dollar War," are answering questions about the war's economic cost.