The Cable

Democrats shoot down McCain’s call for generals to testify

As Barack Obama continues to ponder his war strategy in Afghanistan, members of Congress are waging their own battle over whether the president’s top generals should testify in public. Today, Democratic Senators beat back John McCain’s proposal to require the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, to testify in open hearing, but Republicans ...

As Barack Obama continues to ponder his war strategy in Afghanistan, members of Congress are waging their own battle over whether the president’s top generals should testify in public.

Today, Democratic Senators beat back John McCain’s proposal to require the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, to testify in open hearing, but Republicans are only beginning to escalate their calls for sending more troops to the war-torn country.

The vote came as an amendment to the defense funding bill, which is on the Senate floor this week.  McCain’s amendment would have required testimony by McChrystal, the head of Central Command Gen. David H. Petraeus, the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan Karl W. Eikenberry, and Adm. James G. Stavridis, the top U.S. commander in Europe.

The vote fell along party lines, as did the immediate subsequent vote on a pared-down version put forth by Senate Armed Services Committee chairman Sen. Carl Levin, which passed. That language would require hearings only after President Obama makes a decision about the way forward in Afghanistan. Levin’s amendment suggested testimony from everybody from Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Chairman of Joint Chiefs Adm. Mike Mullen, Petraeus, Stavridis, McChrystal, Eikenberry, and ambassador to Pakistan Anne W. Patterson.

Democrats fear a repeat of the 2007 Iraq debate, when then Iraq commander  Petraeus’s congressional testimony was elevated to the level of gospel, crowding out other views as the administration lobbied for its "surge" strategy. They want to give Obama some time and cover to make his decision.

"This is a highly deliberative moment where personal and private conversations are taking place between the president and his advisors," Sen. John Kerry, D-MA, told The Cable. "For the moment I think the president has the right to make that decision."

But even Democrats point to Nov. 15, the deadline that McCain proposed, as the time by which they want to see an announcement from Obama so that the testimony can go forward.

"I don’t think 45 days is necessarily too much to ask for," said Democratic Nebraska Sen. Ben Nelson, who pointed out that the House Armed Services Committee has already submitted a request for McChrystal’s testimony without any response from the White House.

Regardless, between now and then, Senate Republicans will make a mantra out of calling for McChrystal’s testimony, honing in on an issue they think plays well for them politically, calling for Obama to heed the advice of the "commanders on the ground," who are asking (as they always do) for more troops.

The congressional newspaper Roll Call has details of the GOP communications plan (subscription only):

According to leadership aides, [Minority Leader Mitch]McConnell will continue to make near-daily floor speeches on the issue. Other members of the Republican leadership, as well as the rank and file, are also expected to chime in, focusing on the need for McChrystal to testify before the Senate and for the administration to call for a deployment of more troops to Afghanistan.

A senior GOP leadership aide acknowledged that McConnell is following a messaging strategy similar to one that he has used previously on a number of other issues, most notably the closure of the Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, detention facility, the rising national debt, the costs of health care reform and the $787 billion stimulus bill.

Under his strategy, McConnell and a handful of his lieutenants will lay the foundation for the GOP’s message over the next several weeks, using floor speeches as their primary vehicle.

Republicans have seen some success using this strategy in the past. For instance, McConnell used it this spring to slowly build momentum on the Guantánamo Bay prison closure, helping push the issue to the front burner and build opposition to the Obama administration’s strategy.

Of course, if senators really want to know McChrystal’s views, they can always watch any of his interviews or speeches, or take a look at his classified assessment.

 Twitter: @joshrogin

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