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Power Shift in Washington

Prepared by: Robert McMahon, Editor
Updated: November 8, 2006

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The November 7 midterm elections produced a Democratic majority in the House of Representatives for the first time since 1994. The Senate may go Democratic, too, but races there remain undecided (MSNBC). Opinion surveys suggest the power shift occurred largely due to unease over Republican support for the Bush administration’s policy in Iraq, and the elections will test if we are seeing what a Los Angeles Times analysis calls a “classic ‘throw the bums out’ mood of an electorate uneasy with the Iraq war.” Democratic leaders, including the lawmaker expected to become the very first female Speaker of the House, Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), believe one of their mandates will be oversight of administration policy, especially on Iraq (SFChron).

Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI), in line to chair the Senate Armed Services Committee, says the elections will be, in effect, a referendum on changing course in Iraq (VOA). His Democratic counterpart in the House of Representatives, Ike Skelton (D-MO), has repeated his interest in investigating administration policies surrounding the war. James A. Thurber, who directs American University’s Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies, tells CFR.org the 110th Congress will be “the oversight Congress but also the power-of-the-purse Congress.” A number of experts interviewed by Foreign Policy agreed that oversight investigations would be a feature of a Democrat-controlled Congress. CFR Senior Fellow Lee Feinstein tells CFR.org’s Bernard Gwertzman he believes there might be some increased oversight of administration actions in the event of Democratic control of one or both houses of Congress but no sharp changes in administration policy.

Though some fear the Democrats will overreach now that they've gained power, a new article in Foreign Affairs by political experts Norman J. Ornstein and Thomas E. Mann says congressional oversight of the executive branch on foreign and national security policy has collapsed in recent years. Kenneth Anderson, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, says that no matter which party controls the House or Senate come January 2007, it is critical that the legislature begin asserting legislative control over counterterrorism issues (Policy Review). He writes: “The administration responded swiftly to an unprecedented national emergency. But the United States cannot operate permanently as a national security state.”

President Bush has not shied from addressing Iraq, saying in a recent press conference he was dissatisfied with the situation there and was keeping options open for other steps to bolster security reforms.  The recent death-sentence ruling for Saddam Hussein in his genocide trial gave Bush an opportunity to cite the successes of the young Iraqi democracy. And Vice President Dick Cheney told ABC News the White House was not likely to change course in Iraq in the event of a congressional power change. “We’re doing what we think is right,” he said.

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