Congressional Hearings Could Damage Obama

President Obama’s decision to preemptively take the heat for the Christmas almost-bombing was shrewd and successful, at least initially, unless there are further damning disclosures.

But his gambit (known in old legal pleading as "confession and avoidance") won’t be enough to prevent nasty hearings when Congress returns next week.

Republicans, eager to block his agenda on all fronts (including health care reform) will try to use congressional hearings to put him on the defensive as the anniversary of his inauguration arrives – and as he prepares to give his first retrospective State of the Union address.

The White House already was considering pushing back the SOU until early February—largely, officials hoped, to be able to brag about passage of health care legislation. Now they have another reason to wait.

The White House closed one avenue of Hill attack early on. Rep. Ed Towns (D-N.Y.) had planned to convene a hearing of the House Government Affairs Committee, which he chairs. But doing so would have given a platform to one Obama’s harshest critics, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.). After Democratic leaders (and White House aides) expressed their concern, Towns changed his mind.

(Update) Towns' office said later today that he in fact would hold hearings -- after declining earlier to commit to doing so -- though no date has been set and the sessions would still have to be worked out to fit the busy House calender. His aides also quoted him as saying that he had not talked to either the leadership or the White House about the matter.

But that leaves at least five other committees—one in the House and four in the Senate—planning to conduct hearings. There could be more.

So far, there’s only one that the White House and Democratic leaders are worried about: the one to be chaired by their erstwhile party colleague, Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut. While he votes with Democrats on most domestic issues, his views on terrorism and security are far closer to those of the Bush crowd.

Lieberman has expressed his concern about the decision to try the bombing suspect in federal court (as opposed to a military tribunal); about closing Guantánamo; and about Obama’s refusal to see all security challenges as part of a GWOT ("global War on Terror").

Many Democrats have wanted to oust the renegade independent from the chairmanship of the Homeland Security Committee—and now that committee is poised to be the one that gives the administration the hardest time. Ironically, many Democrats regard the ranking Republican member, Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, as the more responsible, amenable and bipartisan figure.

The House is back next week; the Senate the week of January 18. Lieberman’s committee, as well as the commerce, judiciary and intelligence committees, are planning hearings on that second week.

"The other hearings may not be so bad, but Lieberman’s going to run a show trial," fretted one top Senate aide. "He’s not going to miss a chance to try to made the administration look bad on national security. It’s what his Republican friends want him to do."

Others outside of the leaders’ offices dismiss the concerns. "That committee has always been run in an even-handed and bipartisan manner," said one Hill source who works with the panel.

The president is about to find out how strong—or weak—that tradition is.