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Coming to the Hill: lots of hearing-room drama

Probes of war policies will begin amid ethical scrutiny of members.

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It's going to be a banner year for C-SPAN. That's because Congress is gearing up for the most dramatic slate of hearings since the Clinton impeachment fracas.

The high-profile probes underscore efforts by Congress to reclaim power from a war-time White House. And they could reshape this fall's midterm elections.

In the closing weeks of the old year, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle set in motion an aggressive oversight agenda, ranging from secret prisons and the treatment of detainees under US control, to the president's authorization of domestic eavesdropping without a warrant.

At the same time, more members of Congress find themselves under scrutiny, as ex-super-lobbyist Jack Abramoff and his former associates work out plea agreements promising cooperation in a widening bribery investigation on Capitol Hill. Former House majority leader Tom DeLay, meanwhile, will face charges of money laundering in court later this month.

In all, the scrutiny on - and from - Congress is a sharp turnaround for a Republican-controlled body that came to power extolling ethics, and one that has been deferential to the Bush presidency about its conduct in the war on terrorism.

"It has clearly been a pattern in the past few months of Congress intensifying its efforts of looking into how the executive branch has handled executive authority, and this will only intensify," says Julian Zelizer, a congressional historian at Boston University. "During the 1970s, Congress was also under scrutiny for how it operated; at the same time, it increased its scrutiny of how the White House conducted the war in Vietnam and intelligence. The two go together," he adds.

A major reason for the new posture on Capitol Hill is the willingness of GOP moderates to challenge the Bush administration's war policies. Alarmed by recent disclosures of secret prisons and eavesdropping without warrants, moderates are joining Democrats on key votes - and behind the scenes - to step up congressional oversight.

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