Bush's military nominations likely to get Dems' OK despite Iraq concerns

Despite stepping up opposition to President Bush’s yet-to-be-announced troop-surge plan, the Democratic-led Senate is likely to swiftly confirm military officers selected by the administration to carry out its new plan for Iraq.

But several congressional leaders, both Democrat and Republican, are indicating that nominees will face tough questions on strategy and policy.

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates last week made his officer recommendations to the president, who still has to send the nominations to the Senate. Bush likely will make an announcement on them today.

Lt. Gen. David Petraeus has been chosen to replace Gen. George Casey as the top commander in Iraq with a promotion to four-star general, while Casey will be nominated to become the new Army chief of staff. Meanwhile, Adm. William Fallon will take over U.S. Central Command from Gen. John Abizaid, who is retiring. All three nominations require Senate confirmation.  

Because of the nominees’ high profile, the Senate Armed Services Committee likely will hold confirmation hearings, according to several Senate aides.

But Democrats and some Republicans who have been more cautious about supporting the White House’s troop-surge denied they would use the nomination process to force the president’s hand.

“We will ask the [nominees’] position” on the troop surge, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) said. “We will set swift hearings. I do not know what the hearings will produce, but it is not our intent to hold up votes in any way.” 

Levin is among the strongest proponents of troop withdrawal from Iraq.

As a supporter of increased forces in Iraq, Petraeus is expected to back a rapid troop expansion, in contrast to Casey, who has been skeptical that additional troops would help stabilize the country.

Casey may face tough questions from Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), ranking member of the Armed Services panel, and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), both of whom have been pushing for more troops in Iraq.

The three Pentagon nominees will undergo rigorous hearings, “perhaps even more so because of the enormity of the responsibilities that they seem to be … taking on,” said Sen. John Warner (R-Va.), former chairman of the Armed Services Committee and one of the first top Republicans to speak out about the situation in Iraq before the November elections. 

“We can have an intense, thorough confirmation and do it in a short period of time,” he added.

Meanwhile, Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), a member of the Armed Services panel, said members would grill the nominees. 

“There are going to be all these guys who are moving into these positions and they are going to get a lot of scrutiny and a lot of hard questions about what they are recommending,” he said. 

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who is not a member of the Armed Services Committee, said that holds are always a possibility, but that she is currently not planning to place any.

As the president prepares to announce his strategy for Iraq tonight, Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) has introduced a resolution prohibiting any federal funds to be expended for troops in Iraq above the current number without congressional authorization.

Sen. Dick Durbin (Ill.), the Democratic whip, said that a resolution capping the number of troops and another requiring the president to get congressional approval for troop strength above a certain level could be possible add-ons to the incoming supplemental request.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said he wants to see a bipartisan resolution in response to the White House’s announcement introduced next week. 

Elana Schor contributed to this report.