WASHINGTON—If Democrats win one or both houses of Congress in November's elections, as polls suggest is increasingly likely, President Bush's Washington will change dramatically.
Democrats will press to get out of Iraq. They'll mount investigations into the Bush administration's record that could rival those of Presidents Nixon in Watergate and Clinton in the Monica Lewinsky affair. They'll push a boatload of social-welfare legislation, such as raising the minimum wage, that reflects their pent-up priorities, while blocking the Republican agenda on social issues such as gay marriage, abortion and religion.
Those are some of the top plans that Democrats would pursue if they won power, according to interviews with Democratic lawmakers, strategists, staff aides and lobbyists. The tone and temper of the Democrats were reflected well by Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., the ranking Democrat on the House Government Reform Committee, in a conference call in late August. He'll become the panel's chairman if Democrats take the House.
"The Republican-controlled Congress has worked with the White House to shield them and the government from any scrutiny of corruption and abuse," Waxman said. Democrats "plan to expose the truth about billions of taxpayers' dollars."
That's the flavor that Democrats savor as they return to Congress after Labor Day following a monthlong recess, eagerly anticipating the elections two months away. National polls strongly suggest that they could ride widespread voter discontent with the war in Iraq and Bush into control of one or both houses of Congress for the first time since 1994.
The House of Representatives is more likely to turn Democratic than the Senate, analysts agree. The transition would be symbolized vividly in the change of hands that hold the gavel wielded by the speaker of the House. Now it's Republican Dennis Hastert of Illinois, a loyal supporter of President Bush. If Democrats take the House, the next speaker will be Rep. Nancy Pelosi, a liberal feminist from San Francisco who decries virtually everything Bush does.
Issue one would be the war.
"If the Democrats take the House back, pressure to find a way to withdraw from Iraq will greatly increase," said Rep. Barney Frank, an outspoken liberal Democrat from Massachusetts.
Democrats also could challenge the administration's war strategy at oversight hearings and by threatening to clamp conditions on war appropriations, although they'd take care to do it responsibly, said Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the House's third-ranking Democrat. He'll run for majority leader if the Democrats take control.
"You're not going to see the Congress—Democrats or Republicans—while troops are still deployed, withdrawing support of those troops," Hoyer said. "We want to make sure the troops are kept as safe and supplied as possible."
That caution reflects Democrats' recognition that they might scare voters if they're perceived as favoring a too-radical agenda, a threat that Republicans trumpet in hopes of rallying their own supporters.
Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., for example, could take over as the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. In June 2005 Conyers held an unofficial Democrats-only hearing on Iraq prewar intelligence that many saw as a potential building block for impeaching Bush. Now Conyers is backing off such talk, while Republicans warn that he'd pursue it if he gets power.
"It's something you have to take seriously," Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman said.
Pelosi has said she doesn't support impeaching Bush. Democratic strategist Steve Elmendorf says impeachment is a "Republican bogeyman" and "a ridiculous notion that's not going to happen."
But there's no guarantee of restraint from a freshly empowered Democratic caucus after 12 years of snubs by Republicans.
Democrats should strive for civility if they take power, said Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., but he acknowledged that many of them "are going to want some retribution." Murtha, a leading critic of the Iraq war, will challenge Hoyer for majority leader if the Democrats win.
Mehlman predicts that Republicans will hold their majority by convincing voters that Democrats will raise taxes, compound energy shortages through their environmental policies and weaken national security.
Democrats already are encouraging their top-ranking committee members to think big. Their staffs for several key panels are considering how they'd investigate the Bush administration's preparation for and execution of the Iraq war, Hurricane Katrina, regulatory decisions involving contraception and science versus religion, and administration ties to energy and drug companies, government contractors and individual lobbyists.
Winning even one chamber of Congress would give Democrats a bully pulpit and enable them to hold hearings, issue subpoenas, put witnesses under oath and block Republican legislation. Controlling both chambers would allow Democrats to pass some legislation that Republicans have bottled up for years, although Bush still holds veto power.
Democrats say they'd raise the minimum wage for the first time in a decade and force Bush to accept or veto it.
Here's a partial list of other priorities they'd like to pursue:
_Tax cuts for top earners and multimillion-dollar inheritances could be scrapped.
_Oil company tax breaks could end.
_Pharmaceutical companies would be pressed to lower domestic prices.
_The Medicare prescription-drug benefit could be retooled to help seniors more and benefit the drug industry less.
_Another bill promoting embryonic stem-cell research, such as the one the president vetoed this year, could pass.
_ Global warming could drive environmental and energy policy.
_ Spending on welfare and affordable-housing programs would expand.
If Democrats take the Senate, many of Bush's judicial nominees could be blocked and the calculus of any new Supreme Court nomination would change.
For all their hopes and dreams, Democrats recognize that there are limits on what they can do so long as Bush remains president.
Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y.—who'd become the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, which oversees tax policy—warns that even if Democrats capture a majority in Congress, Republicans "have still got the executive branch, and we've got to work with them. We would be a disappointment to the voters if all we want is retaliation."
Some Democrats are talking about major overhauls to simplify taxes, tackle Social Security's solvency problem and enact universal health coverage. While Bush's new treasury secretary, Henry Paulson, vows to press for big changes too, it's unlikely that such thorny issues would be addressed immediately or that Democrats would compromise much with a lame-duck Republican president.
In the end, University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato doesn't expect that Democrats will accomplish many policy priorities in the near term.
"If the Republicans have one (chamber of Congress) and the Democrats have another, hardly anything is going to reach Bush," he said. "If Democrats take both, then Bush will probably set an all-time record for vetoes."
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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