Voters want change, but also get challenge and confrontation

Wednesday, November 8th 2006, 6:15 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) Voters decided they want change, but they also are bound to get challenge and confrontation in a government split between Democrats and a president determined not to cede ground in his final two White House years.

If President Bush struggled to get top priorities like new Social Security and immigration plans passed in the first half of his second term, his remaining time in office looks even bleaker. Democrats in charge of the House and potentially the Senate will have enough votes to block Bush's proposals and the authority to investigate problems in Iraq and elsewhere that could embarrass the GOP.

Even though he will be a lame duck, Bush still maintains significant power, he can veto Democratic bills he doesn't like and he continues as commander in chief during a time of war. But Democrats said they considered the election an overwhelming rejection of the war in Iraq and, by extension, the president who started it.

"We need to change the direction in Iraq and here at home,'' said Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, who stands to become majority leader if Democrats can eke out victories in the closely contested Virginia and Montana races.

After campaigning hard across the country for months, Bush remained sequestered in the White House residence as the results rolled in. He planned to call House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi Wednesday morning, then hold an afternoon news conference.

Pelosi, of California, is poised to become the first woman House speaker after her caucus won more than two dozen Republican seats without losing a single one.

Voters said the economy, terrorism, corruption and Iraq were most important in their choices. Almost six in 10 disapproved of the war in Iraq, and they overwhelmingly voted for Democrats. A solid majority of voters said the U.S. should withdraw some or all of its troops from Iraq, and they strongly supported Democratic House candidates.

Nearly six in 10 said they disapproved of Bush's presidency. Even more, 61 percent, said they were unhappy with the way Congress was doing its job.

Democrats won support from key groups that Republicans had raided in 1994, when the GOP took control of Congress.

The middle class, for example, gave Republicans a majority of its votes in 1994. Tuesday the results flipped, with Democrats winning a majority of that group.

Democrats also swept through the suburbs, enjoying a 10-point advantage among suburban women and splitting the suburban male vote with the GOP. In 1994, 61 percent of suburban men voted Republican.

In 1994, more than six in 10 white men voted Republican, but the GOP barely won among white men Tuesday, taking about half of their House vote.

"It was not for the lack of effort,'' a defeated Sen. Jim Talent, R-Mo., told subdued supporters. "The headwind was just very, very strong this year.''

Some observers thought both sides would have incentive to work together _ Bush to protect his legacy and Democrats to prove they can govern.

"If this country faces two more years of gridlock, I think the country is going to say a pox on both houses,'' said Leon Panetta, a Democrat who served in Congress and as President Clinton's chief of staff.

Ironically, Bush might have an easier time getting through his proposals to allow more foreigners to work in the United States and give illegal immigrants already here a path to citizenship. Conservatives in his party blocked the idea in favor of a tougher stance on immigration.

But Democrats were likely to put up a fight over Bush's plans for tax cuts, education and spending. Bush's relationship with the Democratic congressional leadership has not been good, he rarely consulted with them. And neither Reid nor Pelosi have been to the White House since last summer.

"This crowd doesn't want to have any bill signing ceremonies with George Bush,'' said Ed Rogers, a Republican consultant who worked in the first Bush White House.

The end of the midterm election means positioning for the 2008 presidential race now heads into full swing. Each party had about a dozen potential candidates, a diverse slate with the unique opportunity to pursue dreams of the White House without a sitting president or vice president in the way.

"People are paying attention to who might come next instead of who is there,'' said Republican consultant Charlie Black.

Democrats hoped the winds of change that brought victory in Republican strongholds around the country would blow into the next two years. "We can build a true majority and reclaim the White House in 2008,'' said Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh, a Democrat with a substantial early presidential campaign operation already in place.

Republicans were headed for a struggle to find a new leader after six years under Bush's mantle.

"In the next few weeks or so the Republican Party must get together and decide how they're going to convince America that they really are in fact the conservative party that the Democrats are pretending to be tonight,'' former House Majority Leader Dick Armey, a Texan considering a bid for the GOP nomination, said on MSNBC.