It is official: Democrats will assume control of both chambers in the next Congress, ousting the Republicans. Naturally, pundits have begun to ponder what this change will mean. It is certain that George Bush’s final two years as President will be dramatically different than they would have been with continued Republican control of Congress. While it is impossible to predict what will happen over the next two years, here are some of the major policy questions Bush and the Democratic majority in Congress, led by Nancy Pelosi in the House and Harry Reid in the Senate, will grapple with:
Iraq. The most urgent policy question facing Bush and Congress, and arguably the issue that most influenced voters, is the mess in Iraq. Pressure for a change in strategy has been building for some time, and with the decisive defeat for Republicans on Tuesday, the resignation of controversial Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and the expected recommendations from the Iraq Study Group (a bipartisan group of wise men asked by Bush for fresh ideas), change is imminent. However, will it be a gradual withdrawal of the bulk of American troops from Iraq, as the Democrats and most Americans seem to favor, or a more hawkish policy featuring troop increases as Republican Senator John McCain favors?
Foreign policy/National Security. Democrats have promised to demand greater accountability from Bush, especially in his prosecution of the “war on terror.” There could be clashes over the President’s penchant for secrecy and his conception of executive power. Other potential flash points include China – which Pelosi and other leftist Democrats criticize for its sorry human-rights record – and the President’s preference for free trade, which some Democrats claim has led to the loss of American manufacturing jobs and lower wages.
Immigration. The President and Congress may be able to work together on immigration reform. The President favors legislation that many Democrats can probably live with. However, Bush’s room for compromise may be restricted by conservative sentiment, which advocates a much harsher approach to illegal immigration than Democrats.
Minimum wage. Another issue that may offer common ground is the Democrats’ promise to raise the minimum wage by about $2 per hour. Bush has signaled quietly that he is open to minimum wage legislation. Many business leaders are not, however, and this issue may also expose cleavages in the Republican party.
Health care. President Clinton failed miserably in his attempt to craft legislation for universal health care. Most Democrats favor some kind of expansion of health care (roughly 50 million Americans are not covered) and party leaders have made noises about addressing the issue. However, the form health care legislation would take is unclear. Republicans and business leaders will be skeptical. This could be an issue that provokes confrontation.
Senate Confirmation. The Constitution gives the Senate the right to “advice and consent” on Presidential nominations for federal judgeships, including the Supreme Court, and high-level appointments like ambassadorships. Future appointments to the bench, especially to the Supreme Court, could also lead to confrontation between Bush and the new Congress, as activists on both sides of the political spectrum care deeply about judicial appointments. Judicial appointments, more than any other issue, provide the battle ground for America’s culture wars.
Right now, there is an air of conciliation about Washington. Both parties have asserted their desire for bipartisanship in the next Congress and Bush has met with Pelosi and Reid to examine potential areas of agreement. However, Democrats are angry after their time out of power and Bush has shown little inclination for compromise in the last few years. Look for initial amity but increasing rancor as both parties remember how much they disagree about the fundamental issues.