Power shift in Washington

A democratic Congress bodes ill for some – but not all – of Bush's agenda.

The tectonic plates of Washington power have shifted, presenting both President Bush and the new Democratic majority in Congress with an opportunity to work together and leave behind the politics of confrontation.

The day after the historic midterm elections of 2006 – in which the Democrats won considerably more than the 15-seat net gain needed to take over the House of Representatives and were heading toward a possible majority in the Senate – leaders from both parties pledged to work together and avoid the intense partisanship of recent years.

"The message yesterday was clear: The American people want their leaders in Washington to set aside partisan differences, conduct ourselves in an ethical manner, and work together to address the challenges facing our nation," Mr. Bush said Wednesday in a press conference.

The reality, analysts say, is that the next two years are likely to offer a blend of confrontation and common ground. The Democrats, after 12 years in congressional opposition, don't want their hard-fought majority to vanish in the next election. The incentive for Bush, entering the final two years of his presidency, is to leave his party in a position to compete effectively in 2008. He can take a page from his earlier days as governor of Texas, when he gained a reputation for working well with Democrats.

"Early indications are that he's doing what he's done before and can do again, if he can get over his hurt and his pique, which it sounds like he already has, or at least he's working on it," says Bruce Buchanan, a political scientist at the University of Texas, Austin. "That is, this is not the time to get confrontational and dig in his heels."

Yesterday morning, Bush was on the phone, congratulating the Democratic leadership of Congress, and inviting the presumptive next speaker of the House, Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, over for lunch.

From the Democrats' end, Ms. Pelosi already has appeared to clamp down on talk of impeaching the president by some of the more vocal liberals in the House. Still, life under the Democrats is expected to include hearings and inquiries into aspects of the Iraq war and the larger war on terror. The challenge will be for the Democrats not to appear on a witch hunt.

By Wednesday morning, the contours of the new House and Senate were becoming clear, but not definitive. At press time, the Democrats had made a net gain of 27 House seats and five Senate seats. One Senate race remained too close to call – but the Republican incumbent, George Allen of Virginia, was slightly behind. If the challenger wins, Democrats will control a majority in the Senate.

In Tuesday's wave, some longtime Republican members were defeated, including Reps. Nancy Johnson of Connecticut, Clay Shaw of Florida, and Curt Weldon of Pennsylvania. In the Senate, incumbent Republicans Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, and Mike DeWine all lost.

For the foot soldiers of both parties, who worked overtime to turn out their voters, such loyalty breeds demands on leaders – and it is among those base constituencies that common ground could be most elusive. For Bush, extending the tax cuts that he says have boosted the US economy will be an important goal. Democrats have pledged to raise the minimum wage as one of their first acts in the majority, presenting Bush with the choice of going along with or vetoing legislation that the public supports.

Some elements of Bush's agenda, such as his plan to partially privatize Social Security, now appear dead while others, such as his plan for comprehensive immigration reform – enhanced enforcement twinned with a guest-worker program – may gain new life.

Generally, voters were in a sour mood. Six in 10 said the nation was on the wrong track, according to exit polls conducted by the Associated Press and other news organizations. Scandals played a role. More than half of voters said they were dissatisfied with the way the GOP House leadership handled the matter of Rep. Mark Foley (R) of Florida, who has been accused of improper behavior toward teenage House pages.

But if one issue was the most important in the vote, it was Iraq. Six in 10 voters said they disapproved of the war. In the end, "the election became a referendum on the war," says Michael McDonald, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington and assistant professor of government and politics at George Mason University.

Whether Bush will read the election results as a mandate to change course in Iraq remains to be seen. If he chooses, he could take cover under the forthcoming recommendations of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, a government-sponsored commission.

Considering both the Iraq war and the halting federal response to hurricane Katrina, voters have become skeptical of the ability of the White House to run important matters of US policy, says George C. Edwards III, a scholar of the presidency at Texas A&M University. "They're not confident in the competence of Republicans to govern. That may, or may not, be fair," he says.

Many newly elected Democratic representatives come from swing districts, and are likely to be more moderate than liberals from safe Democratic seats. Congressional Republicans, for their part, may be dissatisfied with their current leaders, such as Speaker Dennis Hastert (R) of Illinois, and may tack away from a president they increasingly see as a lame duck.

Meanwhile, House Democrats will find it hard to push their own legislative agenda over Republican Senate filibusters and a potential White House veto.

Democrats may have won big Tuesday. "But we still have separation of powers," notes Dr. Edwards.

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