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Democratic Gains Alter Balance of Power in Washington

The shock waves from Democratic Party victories in the congressional midterm elections continued to rock Washington Wednesday. President Bush announced he is replacing Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld as Democrats called for a new approach to the war in Iraq.

With Democrats now controlling a majority in the U.S. House of Representatives for the first time since 1994, Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi left little doubt that her party will seek a fresh approach on Iraq in the months ahead.

"We must not continue on this catastrophic path and so, hopefully, we can work with the president for a new direction, one that solves the problems in Iraq," she said.

President Bush agreed on the need for a "fresh perspective" on Iraq as he announced at a news conference that he was replacing Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who has long been the focus of Democratic criticism over the administration's Iraq policy.

Former CIA Director Robert Gates has been chosen to replace Rumsfeld.

But the president was also quick to dispel any notion of a major shift on Iraq in the wake of Democratic gains in the election.

Mr. Bush said he is open to cooperating with Democrats on improving the situation in Iraq provided they share his ultimate goal.

"Some of the comments I read said, look, we need a different approach to make sure we can succeed. You can find common ground there. See, if the goal is success, then we can work together. If the goal is get out now regardless, then it is going to be hard to work together," he said.

Both parties acknowledge that public discontent over the war in Iraq was the major factor driving Democratic gains in the House of Representatives and Senate.

"This was a very significant victory for the Democrats and they deserved it based on a lot of hard work," said analyst Larry Sabato, who directs the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. "But it was also delivered to them by President Bush and his unpopularity and the unpopularity of the Iraq war."

Many experts predict it will be difficult for the president and his newly energized Democratic rivals to find common ground on Iraq.

"I think the big picture is a change in tone. Certainly Democrats and some other outside forces like the Iraq Study Group [headed by former Secretary of State James Baker] are going to be putting forward some alternatives that may put some significant pressure on the president," said John Fortier, a longtime observer of U.S. politics at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. "But at the end of the day, the president is the commander in chief and has much more say over foreign policy than do these other institutions and we will see how he takes that advice and whether he is changing course significantly, or just in a small way."

The shifting political landscape in Washington will have an impact on the final two years of Mr. Bush's presidency in significant ways beyond Iraq.

Analyst Larry Sabato says it will also be a test of the president's willingness to compromise with Democrats.

"His [President Bush's] domination of American politics is now officially over. He cannot control appointments anymore, at least the ones that go through the Senate. He cannot control appropriations [funding], because they originate in the House [of Representatives]. And he is going to have to do something that he is not very good at doing, which is compromising," he said.

Democrats will face their share of challenges in the months ahead, including convincing voters that they can compete with Republicans as guardians of national security.

It is also possible that divisions among Democrats could emerge between veteran liberal lawmakers looking to exact some measure of political revenge from the administration, and newly elected moderate Democrats who may push for compromise with Republicans.

Tim Curran is editor in chief of Roll Call, a newspaper that covers Congress. He says Nancy Pelosi, expected to be the Democratic speaker of the House, could be pulled in different directions by some of her fellow Democrats.

"She is going to have to be very cautious about how far to the left she is going to lead her troops. I think Pelosi and some of the other Democratic leaders in the House have already signaled that they are going to be cautious about that," he said.

One issue that may benefit from the prospect of divided government is immigration reform. Many Republicans opposed President Bush's effort to include a guest worker program as part of any effort to crack down on illegal immigration. Mr. Bush could find some new allies for his approach among the increased numbers of Democrats who will be going to Congress in January.