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POLITICS-US: Democrats Drub Republicans, Face Own Tests

Analysis by Abid Aslam

WASHINGTON, Nov 8 2006 (IPS) - Come January, Democrats will control one and possibly both houses of the U.S. Congress for the first time in more than a decade after voters snubbed President George W. Bush’s Republican Party and prompted Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to quit his embattled post.

Rumsfeld announced Wednesday that he would surrender his job. This after ongoing vote counts indicated the Democrats had snatched at least 27 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. Democrats had needed 15 new seats to wrest the majority from Republicans, many of whom had sought to distance themselves from the Bush administration in a bid to keep their berths.

Majority power would have enabled House Democrats to issue subpoenas and compel Rumsfeld to answer legislators’ questions regarding his prosecution of the U.S.-led invasion and ongoing bloody occupation of Iraq.

Rumsfeld’s resignation also precedes the release of recommendations from the Iraq Study Group led by James Baker, Bush’s father’s secretary of state, on how Washington can extricate itself from the mayhem it has unleashed. That report is expected by year’s end.

Bush had said last week that he would retain Rumsfeld until January 2009, when the U.S. leader is due to hand over the White House to his eventual successor. On Wednesday, he was quoted as saying it was “time for new leadership” at the Pentagon.

Rumsfeld had found himself estranged from many Republicans, including neoconservative brothers in arms with whom the defence secretary had designed and engineered consent for the 2003 invasion of Iraq.


Among them, former Defence Policy Board chairman Richard Perle has said he would not have pushed for the invasion had he known that the Bush administration would botch it.

The opposition Democratic Party needed to win the House in order to establish a legislative beachhead from which to launch its electoral assault on the White House, which it hopes to reclaim at the polls in two years.

Control of the House, if not both chambers, would enable Democrats to start putting forward an affirmative legislative agenda in the run-up to the 2008 presidential election, Democratic pollster Anna Greenberg said Tuesday.

With votes still being counted Wednesday, it appeared that Democrats had won at least five of the six seats they needed for a simple majority in the U.S. Senate.

Expectations that control of both chambers would position Democrats to establish and enforce a legislative siege of the Bush administration might prove naive because their majorities likely will remain slim and as divisions within the party, papered over for the sake of the elections, begin to show through again.

To be sure, the Democrats’ victory was fueled by voter discontent over the Iraq war, corruption in government and politics, and Bush’s job performance. The extent to which they are able to alter the course of U.S. foreign policy or dismantle security or domestic policies and programmes they pilloried while in the minority remains to be tested, however.

While Democrats have kept up a chorus of calls for a change of course – chiefly, the withdrawal of U.S. troops – in Iraq, they have been largely silent on detailed alternatives to Bush’s policy and have yet to put forward a consensus proposal.

Analysts and activists also will be watching to see if Democrats are able to alter Bush’s handling of the nuclear standoff with Iran, and whether they confirm John Bolton, Bush’s prickly U.N. ambassador, or vote him down. This would force Bolton to choose between finding a new job and staying on without pay. Opposition to Bolton’s nomination from the outgoing Congress forced Bush to appoint him while legislators were away on holiday – a temporary measure.

On the domestic front, change appears imminent on at least one bread-and-butter issue. Activists anticipate that a Democratic House will pass the first increase in the federal minimum wage in nearly a decade.

While Iraq dominated voters’ decision-making Tuesday, many polls and pundits indicated that the economy and corruption were just as important to key constituencies.

Exit polls – in which voters volunteer to answer questions after voting – showed that key swing groups returned to the Democrats because they were concerned about the economy. Voters who had favoured Republicans in recent elections but swung against them on Tuesday included married women, middle-income earners, and the elderly.

At least in aggregate terms, the U.S. economy has posted positive growth for much of Bush’s six years in office. Inequality has increased, however, and insecurity has been fueled by stagnant wages, a weakening housing sector, and healthcare changes widely regarded as coming at the cost of low-income and retired members of the population.

 
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