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Inquiring Minds

For months Democratic legislation creating an independent commission to probe the intelligence failures that led to 9/11 has languished in Congress. The president has opposed the idea since at least early February, when Cheney personally phoned Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle to warn that such an investigation would harm national security during a war. Not even the combined star power of the bill's sponsors, Senators Joe Lieberman and John McCain, did much to catch the media's attention. After 9/11 the White House successfully limited congressional oversight regarding the attacks to a joint investigation by the Senate and House Intelligence Committees, which are notoriously deferential to the agencies they oversee. And even as that joint inquiry fell prey to partisan fighting and CIA stonewalling, few Democrats dared to raise the idea of a more vigorous probe--until last week.

The revelations about Bush's August 6 briefing, coming on the heels of the Phoenix memo and Zacarias Moussaoui's detention, obviously don't suggest that Bush knew about 9/11 in advance. But they buttress the Democrats' call for a wider investigation. Conservatives point to the president's 70 percent approval ratings and argue that the recent Democratic attacks on Bush were ineffective. But those same polls show that Americans now want a high-profile investigation of how 9/11 happened. On Tuesday, after Daschle announced his support for a commission, the White House and congressional Republicans launched an aggressive effort to kill it. But even prominent conservatives like George Will and the editors of The Weekly Standard have now endorsed the idea. As New Jersey Democrat Robert Torricelli told a reporter last week, "The debate about the relative merits of a national commission is effectively over."

If the democrats get their commission, the administration will have lost control over the 9/11 probe, and there is no telling what embarrassing or incriminating information will come to light. And for the White House, the problem is broader than just one inquiry. In the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 intelligence flap, congressional Democrats have moved to assert their oversight authority on a host of issues the Bushies had hoped were dead. Legislation to make Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge a Cabinet secretary who can be called before Congress is gaining momentum: Dick Gephardt, citing the Phoenix memo and other recent disclosures, announced his support for the bill Tuesday; and on Wednesday Joe Lieberman's Governmental Affairs Committee approved it. Also this week, Democrats turned the House debate on an Afghan aid bill into an opportunity to attack Bush's approach to security and nation-building in postwar Afghanistan. On another front, Lieberman issued the first congressional subpoenas to the White House on Wednesday, demanding information about contacts with Enron. There is a larger dynamic operating here: If at first Bush used 9/11 to neuter Congress, Bush's new 9/11 vulnerability is allowing Congress to reassert itself.

For Democrats up for reelection this year, the recent sparring with Bush offers the first opportunity to carve out some war-on-terror bona fides. The best example is Tuesday's House debate on the Afghan aid bill. The legislation authorizing the funds could have passed quickly under what is known as "suspension of the rules," a format for legislation that enjoys wide support and which requires a two-thirds majority vote. But Democrats insisted on a longer debate so they could beat up Bush. Members took to the floor to challenge the president's approach on everything from refugees and warlordism to the health and education of Afghan children. Democrats are saying that while Bush may have won the war, Americans still need Democrats to make sure Afghan kids get health care and don't step on land mines. This is the kind of thing members can take back to their districts to insulate them from the president's popularity; it's proof that they too are contributing to the war on terror. Most importantly, Tom Lantos, ranking member of the House Committee on International Relations, added a provision to the aid bill that requires Bush to come up with a coherent strategy to provide security for all of Afghanistan, not just Kabul (which enjoys an international peacekeeping force). Such micromanaging of the administration's war on terror by Congress was unthinkable just a few months ago.

For the Democrats in Congress who want to run against Bush in 2004, the recent flap over intelligence failures provides a way to regain control over the most potent weapon they possess: the power to investigate the White House. The administration used 9/11 to restrict the damaging fishing expeditions to which every recent president has been subjected. With at least half a dozen senators angling for Bush's job, stopping such inquiries is vital to the White House. (It's one reason the White House is obsessed with regaining the Senate this year--it would knock the pedestals out from under most of Bush's potential 2004 opponents.) But last week changed all that. Throughout the week's unpleasantness, Republicans angrily accused Democrats of trying to tear down the president because they are frustrated by his high poll numbers. That's only partly true: Bush's approval rating has been dropping by two to three points every month no matter what other political forces have been at play. What Democrats are really doing--and what the White House fears is working--is showing that no matter how much the country admires Bush, it needs a Democratic Congress to keep him in check. That may not be as sexy as arguing that Bush could have prevented 9/11, but if the Democrats use their recent momentum to get their way on an outside commission, aid to Afghanistan, a Department of Homeland Security, and a wider Enron probe, the consequences for Bush could be bad enough.

By Ryan Lizza