WASHINGTON â€” After a five-year Republican lock on power, the quagmire in Iraq handed US President George W. Bush a Democrat-controlled Congress in late 2006, which is likely to make his last two years in the White House tough ones.
Democrats rode public perceptions of Bush’s mishandling of the fight in Iraq to take control of both the Senate and the House of Representatives for the first time in 12 years in November 7 elections.
Since Bush came into office in January 2001, Democrats have had little impact on his policies, only able to raise questions of his policies in limited hearings and non-binding resolutions.
But when the new Congress opens in January, they will be able to press Bush heavily to reverse key policies, and Bush will have few of the tools that allowed him to snub the opposition for five years.
As soon as the November votes were counted, Democrats boosted pressure on the president to set a timetable for pulling US troops out of Iraq and to engage directly with Syria and Iran on bringing security to Iraq.
A week before the election Bush had been defiant, saying in a campaign speech that “The Democrat approach in Iraq comes down to this: The terrorists win and America loses.” But just hours after the Republican defeat, which even Bush acknowledged was a trouncing, the president bowed to pressure and replaced Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld, the embattled architect of the US invasion and occupation of Iraq.
Bush’s party also lost when Democrats successfully painted them as fostering a “culture of corruption” in Washington. The epithet stuck with voters who had seen the previous two years full-up with scandals involving lobbyists, under-age congressional aides, numerous Republican lawmakers and millions of dollars in questionable contracting deals, campaign donations and skewed legislation.
One scandal saw the top Republican in the House of Representatives, Tom Delay, forced to give up his seat. Another saw the conviction of arguably the most powerful Republican lobbyist in Washington, Jack Abramoff.
Republicans were also embarrassed five weeks before the election when another senior representative had to resign his seat on charges that he had made sexual overtures to numerous teenage male aides in Congress.
Democrats charged as well that Florida representative Mark Foley’s behaviour had been known for years to Republican leaders but that they had covered it up.
The case was like a gift from heaven for Democrats, who had stood by for years as Republicans parroted anti-homosexual stances to curry the most conservative voters.
Democrats are not taking over without problems. Nancy Pelosi, who will in January become the first woman ever to preside over the House as speaker, was rebuffed in her choice for her top lieutenant.
Democrats instead voted one of her party rivals in as majority leader.
Democrats are challenged in other ways. Bush can use his veto power to reject their proposals, and their weak majority in the Senate â€” 51 seats to the Republicans’ 49 â€” will make it difficult to override a veto.
Excepting minor bills and procedural laws, they will find it hard to reverse the major Bush initiatives of the past five years or to push through ambitious programmes the Republicans don’t back.
Moreover, Bush still controls military and foreign policy, making it difficult for the Democrats to force a withdrawal of troops from Iraq. But control of Congress will give Democrats a platform to begin fighting to recover the presidency in 2008, with the battle essentially under way as soon as the vote was tallied on November 7.
Democrat governor of Iowa Tom Vilsack was first to officially throw his hat into the presidential ring in late November.
But also eying the presidency are African-American first-term Senator Barack Obama, and Senator Hillary Clinton, widely considered the front-running Democrat.
Senator John McCain, popular with voters in both parties, is seen at the moment as having the best chance for the Republican nomination. But pundits also have their eyes on former New York City mayor Rudolph Giulliani and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, both considered more moderate than Bush and his backers.