Democrats set to take control of US Congress
WASHINGTON – Democrats take back control of the US Congress Thursday for the first time in 12 years, vowing to hold President George W. Bush accountable for the Iraq quagmire even as Bush prepares to announce a change of course there.
A new class of nearly 500 lawmakers — a third of the 100-seat US Senate and the entire 435-seat House — are to be sworn in Thursday, in the aftermath of November’s historic election that saw public discontent with the Iraq war lead to heavy losses by Bush’s Republicans.
The new Democratic majority has set high on their agenda hearings on quelling sectarian strife in Iraq and perceived administration mistakes getting into the war.
But these will come as Bush prepares to announce a major policy shift designed to transfer control of Iraq security from US-led coalition forces to the Baghdad leadership.
Key among the proposals Bush is expected to announce sometime in the next few weeks is a short-term “surge” of thousands of additional US troops aimed at increasing the level of security in Baghdad.
But Bush faces a new level of resistance from a Congress which for six years has mostly done his bidding.
Democrats said that if Bush hopes, for the sake of his legacy, to achieve anything substantive during last two years in office, he will have to compromise.
“Democrats ran on a message of compromise and we certainly want to work with the president. We hope that when the president says compromise, it means more than ‘do it my way,’ which is what he’s meant in the past,” Democratic Senator Charles Schumer said.
Still, indications are the Democrats plan to fully use their newfound clout.
Democratic Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Joe Biden is organizing up to a dozen hearings on the Iraq war, with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to testify.
And Carl Levin, his counterpart on the Senate Armed Services Committee, plans to summon new Defense Secretary Robert Gates and other officials.
The first main dogfight could come over Bush’s expected shakeup of Iraq war policy.
Biden has said he would oppose any effort to increase US troop levels as part of a new strategy.
And even some members of Bush’s Republican party in Congress expressed uncertainty about a short-term force-level increase, saying they prefer to defer to military experts, some of whom also oppose the surge.
“I am reluctant to try to give advice to our military commanders in the field,” said Republican Representative Steve King (news, bio, voting record), in a sentiment echoed by several lawmakers.
“I trust their judgment. Every one of them tells me that they are not in a tactical risk of losing this war,” he said.
But King added that he is very much in favor of an infusion of Iraqi forces, including Kurdish troops.
“I am for a surge that is led by a brigade of Kurds. They need to get in the fight, and we need the Iraqi army in the fight,” said King, who made a weeklong visit to Iraq last month.
Faced with a feisty Congress run by Democrats, on Wednesday Bush called for better collaboration between the administration and the legislature.
“It’s time to set aside politics and focus on the future,” Bush said after a meeting with members of his cabinet and ahead of a White House reception for Democratic and Republican leaders.
Despite Democrats’ new authority in Congress, the president can still curtail their ambitions with a veto. Internal divisions within the party could also be harmful, making some degree of cooperation likely between the two sides.
Democrats in the Senate were also reminded last month of the fragility of their one-seat majority when Senator Tim Johnson suffered a sudden brain hemorrhage and underwent emergency surgery.
If Johnson were to die or resign from office for health reasons, control of the Senate would likely revert to Republicans.