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Congress struggles to ramp up oversight

Its efforts to challenge powers claimed by the executive branch are faltering on partisan lines.

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Forty-four months after authorizing the use of force in Iraq, the House Thursday opened the floor to its first day-long debate about the war. A key theme: Keeping the White House accountable.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Capitol, the Senate voted Wednesday to pay for future war costs through the regular budget process, rather than through "emergency" spending bills. It's a move lawmakers say will increase congressional oversight of the war.

At the same time, a Senate panel will grapple next week with how to oversee the National Security Agency's (NSA) warrantless surveillance of communication between Americans and suspected terrorists abroad.

The moves signal that Congress is trying – again – to revive its flagging oversight role of an executive branch that is claiming broad wartime powers. It's doing so, analysts say, because control of Congress in this fall's midterm elections could turn on the issue.

"The broader motivation in Congress by the majority party is clearly the sinking political fortunes of the president and the party and the fear of retribution in November," says Thomas Mann, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a center-left think tank in Washington.

So far, however, both chambers of Congress have struggled to make headway. Sen. Arlen Specter (R) of Pennsylvania, for example, has repeatedly been stymied in his bid to bring the government's secret eavesdropping program in line with the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. On Thursday, the Judiciary Committee he chairs postponed the consideration of four versions of legislation to require more oversight. The Senate Intelligence Committee is developing its own plan to strengthen supervision of the NSA program. "Congress's ability to conduct effective oversight depends on what political price the president has to pay for resisting congressional scrutiny," wrote Senator Specter, in an opinion piece Thursday.

So far, that price has not been high. And this week, one of the few congressional committees that had been cruising on a bipartisan basis stalled out on party lines over the issue of congressional oversight.

Last week, Democrats on the House Armed Services Committee called on Chairman Duncan Hunter (R) of California to reestablish the subcommittee on oversight and investigations, which traditionally led probes of the Pentagon. Republicans did away with that panel when they took back the House in 1995.

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