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America Votes, Washington Changes


On election day [11/07/06], Americans changed the power structure in Washington by handing control of Congress to the Democratic Party. The end of four years of Republican control of Capitol Hill reflects a pronounced change in voters' views of the situation in Iraq and other issues.

The shift in U.S. political power was dramatic. On November 7th, U.S. voters made the Republican Party the minority in the House of Representatives, which it had controlled since 1994, and the Senate, which Republicans had led since 2002.

Republican Defeat

In the aftermath of that decision, President Bush acknowledged his part in how things turned out and promised to work with the new Democratic Congress. "I'm obviously disappointed with the outcome of the election. And as the head of the Republican Party, I share a large part of the responsibility. I told our party's leaders that it is now our duty to put the elections behind us, and work together with the Democrats and independents on the great issues facing this country," said President Bush.

While the Bush administration and the Republicans tried to focus the election primarily on terrorism and other national security issues, Diana Owen, a specialist on American attitudes and perceptions at Georgetown University, says voters were displeased on a wide range of issues, and turned out strongly at the polls.

"This is an election that the public cared about. The turnout level is higher than is typical in midterm [i.e., biennial, non-presidential] elections and much higher than the last midterm election. The issues of Iraq, the economy; the issues of health and education are on people's minds. And they're not pleased with the way things are going," says Owen.

The day after the elections, President Bush announced that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was leaving his post, and nominated former C.I.A. Director Robert Gates to replace Rumsfeld. Gates is a member of the bi-partisan Iraq Study Group commissioned by Congress to find new strategies for establishing security in that country and determining the future U.S. role there.

Meanwhile, Capitol Hill was anticipating the changes coming with Democratic Party control. Along with a shift in the number of House and Senate seats they will hold, the Democrats will also take the leadership posts for all Congressional committees.

Power Shift

Many analysts say the Democrats could use their newly won control of Congress to punish the Republicans, who the Democrats say often excluded them from having substantive input in forging legislation and deciding which issues to put up to a vote. But one analyst, Nathan Gonzales at the Rothenberg Political Report in Washington, says the victors would be wise to look ahead, not behind.

"Democrats have to balance some of the pent-up anger of being in the minority in the House for 12 years with the reality that they want to continue to be the majority going forward. And if they overstep their bounds, if they press too hard on investigations into the [Bush] administration [regarding its actions and policies], then they're at risk of losing their majority in two years [in the 2008 Congressional elections]," says Gonzales.

Political scientist Larry Sabato at the University of Virginia, a state just south of Washington, D.C., says the Democrats will also need to prove to voters that they have an action plan of their own that will produce results.

"If the Democrats are smart, they're going to make certain that they do accomplish something, that they work out some compromise on at least a few pieces of legislation that can be counted as achievements. They would do well to try to achieve some fiscal responsibility and to regenerate the oversight function [of Congress regarding the Executive Branch], which has been lost almost entirely over these past six years," says Sabato.

House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, who if elected Speaker of the House by her party would be the first woman in U.S. history to hold that post, says the Democrats' agenda in the new Congress will concentrate on issues the party campaigned on.

"To make America safer by enacting the 9-11 Commission recommendations [regarding ways to fight terrorism], raising the minimum wage, to make college more affordable, improving health care by advancing stem cell research and by enabling the Secretary [of the Department of Health and Human Services] to negotiate for lower prices for prescription drugs, moving toward energy independence [and] preserving social security," said Pelosi.

Political Stalmate?

Most analysts say the Democratic Party's Congressional agenda will likely trigger clashes and possibly a legislative stalemate with the Bush administration and Republican lawmakers. With the White House no longer able to easily get Capitol Hill to approve its initiatives, analyst Jennifer Duffy at the Washington-based Cook Political Report says she expects President Bush to take his case directly to the people in the hopes that they will pressure the Democrats to agree with him, especially in one key area.

"You have to remember that there is no bigger megaphone in American politics than the White House. And he [i.e., President Bush] still has that megaphone [regardless of the election outcome]. One of the centerpieces of the Democratic agenda has been rolling back some of his tax cuts. He will certainly remind Americans that rolling back these tax cuts means higher taxes for them," says Duffy.

The consensus among political observers is that both the Democratic and Republican parties are now training their sights on the presidential contest two years from now, and that with no incumbent to re-elect, the White House is up for grabs. Those analysts say that because many voters expressed distaste for the political posturing in Washington, each party will have to hold back on partisanship and prove to the electorate that it is responsive to the needs of the people. But some observers say that despite promises by both Democrats and Republicans to work together, such restraint and forward-thinking may not be entirely achieved.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program,VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.

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