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Winds of Political Change Blow in Washington

The winds of change blew through Washington Thursday as Democrats took control of Congress for the first time in 12 years. The congressional shift in power following last November's elections brings new opportunities and challenges for Democrats, Republicans and President Bush. VOA National correspondent Jim Malone has more from Washington.

As Democrats assumed power after a 12-year stretch as the minority party in Congress, they also made history by selecting California Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi as the first woman speaker of the House.

"Let us stand together to move our country forward, seeking common ground for the common good," she said. "We have made history. Now, let us make progress for the American people."

Democrats intend to use their majority status to quickly set a new congressional agenda and shift the legislative focus to enacting ethics reform, raising the minimum wage and lowering the cost of prescription drugs.

Will Marshall of the Progressive Policy Institute spoke to VOA's Focus program.

"It is a perch from which to begin to introduce the themes and ideas that they want to govern on in the next two years, and also that the Democratic candidates for president will want to run on in 2008," he said. "And, of course, they are in a position to completely block whatever is left of the Bush agenda."

President Bush says he is open to working with the new Congress, but also cautions Democrats that he will oppose any efforts to undo some of his key domestic policies, especially any attempt to raise taxes.

"We have all been entrusted with public office at a momentous time in our nation's history, and, together, we have important things to do," he said. "It is time to set aside politics and focus on the future."

Mr. Bush had grown accustomed to Republican control of Congress during his first six years in office. Now, he faces an energized Democratic majority at a time when his own public approval ratings remain low, in large part because of the war in Iraq.

But Amy Walter of the Cook Political Report says President Bush will still wield influence in the final two years of his presidency.

"The president is saying to Democrats, you're not the only ones who control the agenda here," she explained. "I am the president. I am the bully pulpit. I am going to put my agenda forward."

Democrats also face pressures from their own ranks, especially from liberal anti-war activists like Cindy Sheehan, who demand that Congress force the Bush administration to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq.

"We elected them to bring the troops home, stop funding the war and for accountability," she said.

Democrats rode public unhappiness over Iraq to election victories in November. But now, some analysts contend, they will have to take some responsibility for finding a bipartisan solution to the country's top foreign policy challenge, even though the issue divides Democrats.

"The problem that the Democrats now have is that, to some degree, their base really turned out, and was really motivated, because they wanted to send them out and end this war," said David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, and a recent guest on VOA's Focus program. "And, as a result, they have bought a part of the war, and they have some joint responsibility, but they do not have a [unified] position and they do not know really what to do about it."

The politics of the 2008 presidential election are also likely to intrude in the debate over what to do next in Iraq.

"This is where all these presidential candidates that are in the United States Senate that are Democrats are going to drive this debate for the Democratic Party," said Chuck Todd, editor of the Hotline political newsletter based in Washington. "I have no idea whether that is going to be a positive or a negative for a party, but they are going to drive the debate, as far as Congress is concerned, because, I think, they are going to use their bully pulpit in the Senate."

As for Republicans, they have vowed to work with Democrats where they can, and oppose them where they must.

University of Virginia political expert Larry Sabato says it may take a while for Republicans to adjust to their new minority status.

"The Republicans are going to have some time in the wilderness, and that is not just because of Iraq. It is also because of the multitude of scandals that disgusted even many conservative Republicans," he noted.

Republicans may have their best chance to influence or block bills in the Senate, where Democrats have a narrow margin of control, and where the rules give the minority party a greater ability to shape legislation.