Wednesday Congress will again take up what, in many ways, is the most fundamental military question of the Iraq war and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's tumultuous tenure: Is the Army big enough to do its job?
For more than two years, Congress has hammered the Pentagon on this point, claiming that the reliance on more than 60,000 National Guard and Reserve troops in Iraq is a sign of an Army stretched dangerously thin. And for more than two years, Mr. Rumsfeld has remained unshakable in his conviction that the answer to any manpower problems lay in ongoing efforts to transform the military from its cold-war excesses into a leaner and more efficient fighting force.
Last year, when Congress ignored his counsel and mandated a permanent 20,000-soldier increase for the Army, the tug of war played out as a battle of wills, pitting the Pentagon's vision of the future against Congress's concerns about the present. Now, the House is poised to take up the cause again, considering a measure that would tack on another 10,000 troops.
As the war in Iraq enters a crucial period - one that could help decide when troops can start coming home - it is an issue that cuts to the core of the military's prospects for success. On Wednesday, legislators must weigh whether more soldiers will help the military despite itself or simply add new budget, training, and recruiting burdens to an organization already pushed to its limits.
As was the case last year, the provision would merely be added to the National Defense Authorization Act - the Pentagon's 2006 budget. The subcommittee debate Wednesday could move the measure forward for a full House vote. But concern around the issue is such that several lawmakers - including Rep. Ellen Tauscher (D) of California and Sens. Jack Reed (D) of Rhode Island and Chuck Hagel (R) of Nebraska - have introduced bills to ratchet up the size of the Army and Marines.