Emboldened by their congressional election triumph and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld’s resignation, Democrats say they will use their new clout to force a change in Iraq policy and demand that President Bush start bringing troops home.

Rumsfeld’s resignation — and Bush’s pledge to work with Democrats on issues facing the nation — came after months of the president backing Rumsfeld and insisting the war in Iraq was on track. His arguments lost steam after voters catapulted Democrats to power in Tuesday’s voting, giving Democrats control of both the House and Senate next year.

Democrats say they hope election gains would provide momentum for more than the fall of Rumsfeld.

First stop next year will be legislation calling for an undetermined number of troops to come home immediately. Though Democrats are divided over exactly what to propose, they say their effort will send a loud political signal to disgruntled U.S. voters, and to Iraqis to assume more responsibility.

“I believe a number of Republicans will want to join forces here because there’s a lot of unease in the country,” said Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., in line to head the Senate Armed Services Committee in the new Congress.

That dynamic may be on display even sooner than next year.

Sen. John Warner, R-Va., the current chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, already has planned an Iraq hearing for next week with top military and intelligence officials testifying.

And after Bush surprised virtually the entire capital by announcing Rumsfeld’s departure on Wednesday and picking former CIA Director Robert Gates to replace him, Warner said he wants to hold Gates’ confirmation hearings this year — sessions that could become inquiries into almost every aspect of the Iraq war.

Aides say when the new Congress convenes in January, Democrats plan to call for troops to begin coming home from Iraq and to increase money for veterans and training special operations forces. Levin and Rep. Ike Skelton, D-Mo., the next chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said they also will push for more money to fix damaged military equipment.

Democrats also are awaiting the recommendations of a bipartisan panel led by former Secretary of State James Baker III on Iraq, expected by early January or sooner.

House Democrats say they plan to set up a new committee next year focused on uncovering abuses in defense spending and policies, and possibly an independent commission to investigate waste and fraud associated with the billions of dollars spent to rebuild Iraq. Implementing unfulfilled recommendations by the 9/11 commission — such as plugging holes in airport security — is also on their agenda.

“It’s going to be hearings, accountability, trying to restore trust so the people understand what the real facts are,” said Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., the Marine veteran who last year called for an immediate withdrawal of troops from Iraq and helped crystallize congressional opposition to the war.

While majority Democrats will have the power to demand information from the White House and control the federal pursestrings, their constitutional ability to control defense and foreign policy issues will be limited. The president still commands the armed forces and oversees diplomatic dealings with other nations.

Further, even though Democrats will control the Senate, they will do so only by a narrow 51-49 margin. Democrats will lack the two-thirds majorities needed to override presidential vetoes and enact bills the White House might oppose, and the 60 votes needed to prevent Senate Republicans from filibustering legislation.

They also might have to work to keep Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman, the longtime Democrat who won Tuesday as an independent after losing the Democratic primary, on their side.

“They’re going to need to do a lot of tap-dancing on Iraq,” Darrell West, a political science professor at Brown University, said of Democrats. “They need to bide their time, ask the tough questions and see how this issue plays out over the next year.”

Even so, Democrats insisted — and even Bush conceded — that the election was about Iraq. The overwhelming sentiment voters showed against the war will put tremendous pressure on Bush and GOP lawmakers to change course in the conflict.

Polls of voters found a strong majority — about six in 10 — disapproved of the war in Iraq. About a fourth of those polled said they sided with Democrats on wanting to withdraw some troops from Iraq and another three in 10 said they want all troops withdrawn.

Anger over the war prompted Republicans to lose critical swing voters. Two-thirds of independent voters in the country said they disapproved of the war, with almost half of them strongly disapproving.

Voters’ disapproval of the war factored heavily into nearly every tightly contested race, and many Democratic challengers won by identifying a specific timetable on when troops should come home.

In Ohio, Republican Sen. Mike DeWine, who echoed Bush’s line that the United States should stay in Iraq until the job was finished, lost to Democratic Rep. Sherrod Brown, who says troops should leave within two years. In Pennsylvania, Democrat Joe Sestak beat 10-term Republican Rep. Curt Weldon after calling for troops to be withdrawn by the end of 2007.

But while setting timetables may have helped Democrats win votes, they may have a tough time pushing their plan through Congress. Democratic incumbents are divided on how soon to pull troops out of Iraq, and the party risks being held responsible by voters in the 2008 presidential elections if an abandoned Iraq collapses into a full-blown civil war.


Associated Press writers David Hammer and Kimberly Hefling contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2006 The Associated Press