By Michelle Austein
November 01, 2006
The Democrats must pick up 15 more seats than they currently hold in the U.S. House of Representatives to become the majority party. In the Senate, the Democrats need six more seats to gain control.
If the Democrats became the majority party in either chamber, there would be a divided government. A divided government is a situation in which one party controls at least one chamber of Congress, while the president is a representative of the other party. This situation happens frequently in U.S. politics, most recently during the final six years of President Clinton's presidency and again during part of President Bush's first term.
A divided government could have serious implications for Bush's agenda, said James Thurber, professor of government and director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University in Washington.
In an interview, Thurber said foreign policy and Iraq are major issues in the minds of voters. If the Democrats gain control of the House of Representatives, they likely would "try to change the president's policy on Iraq through the power of the purse and oversight," Thurber said. According to the U.S. Constitution, bills appropriating federal funds (the power of the purse) must originate in the House of Representatives.
In a November 1 Webchat, Thomas Mann, a scholar with the Brookings Institution in Washington, said Iraq will be a central concern of the new Congress. "I expect highly publicized hearings on the best way forward there," he said.
Mann said he expects Congress to put pressure on the Bush administration to take a more active role in peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians.
Immigration, economic and governmental ethics laws -- topics that are among voters' top interests -- also might face changes in a divided government. Congress likely will review tax-cut rates and policies. Some tax cuts might become permanent, Mann said.
A change in congressional leadership could affect trade provisions as well. Congress will have to decide if the Trade Promotion Authority Act, also known as "fast track" authority, should be extended when it expires in July 2007, Mann said. The act gives the president powerful authority in negotiating trade agreements by not allowing Congress to amend the agreements and requiring their review within a fixed period. The "fast track" procedures apply to a trade agreement only if the president consulted with Congress during its negotiation and met other statutory requirements.
The act is not likely to be extended by the new Congress, Mann said, adding that an extension would have been unlikely in the current Congress as well. "It will take time and exceptional presidential leadership to rebuild domestic political support necessary to re-establish this authority. This will be a central challenge facing the next president," Mann said.
MORE COOPERATION WOULD BE REQUIRED TO PASS LAWS
Even if they hold the majority, the Democrats "can't strictly govern with their own troops," said Mann at a panel hosted by the Brookings Institution October 31.
Mann was one of three political experts who spoke about Congress and the upcoming elections. Mann said the Democrats would need to create an atmosphere in which some Republicans would vote with them on certain issues, noting that the president has veto power. A veto can be overridden in Congress by a two-thirds vote.
Even if the Democrats become the majority party, it does not mean that Congress would pass more liberal legislation, the experts said. Many of the newly elected Democrats would be near the center of the political spectrum.
Among the new Democrats likely to be elected to the House, Thurber said in his interview, are 12 who are considered conservative to moderate, primarily on economic issues. These Democrats tend to vote together -- currently there are 37 such Democrats. Because of this tendency, "people will need to go to the middle to get things done in the House of Representatives," Thurber said.
Regardless of which party wins the most seats, it will be in the Bush administration's best interest to seek bipartisanship, said Vin Weber, a former Republican congressman from Minnesota. Weber, one of the three experts speaking at Brookings, said Republican congressmen in the next Congress might act more independently of their party because they do not have to support an upcoming presidential re-election. Because term limits prevent him from running for president again, Bush runs the risk of being a "lame duck" -- an officeholder who has lost influence due to the impending expiration of his or her term. President Bush's term will end on January 20, 2009.
The sixth year of any administration often brings a swing against the incumbent party, said Robert J. Lieber, professor of government and international affairs at Georgetown University in Washington.
Any president facing congressional control by an opposition party faces more difficulty in getting his legislative program through Congress, and there is an increased need for bipartisanship, Lieber said in an interview.
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