Democrats assume control of the US House and Senate with President George W. Bush’s policies, starting with Iraq, weighing heavily on their agenda.

Public discontent with the Iraq war was a major factor in the Republicans losing control of Congress in the November 7 legislative elections, and the issue will be first on the agenda of the new majority.

Incoming Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Joseph Biden has already said he would oppose any effort by Bush to increase US troops in Iraq as part of a new war strategy.

“If the President proposes escalation in Iraq, I will oppose him and so will many of my colleagues in Congress,” he warned last week while admitting that his powers were limited.

“We don’t get to make foreign policy in the US congress,” he said. “We get to try to shape it.

“And it’s a vehicle that we can use, if done well, to help shape a consensus that will put pressure on the president.”

Indications are the Democrats, who regained control of both houses of Congress after 12 years of near-domination by the Republican Party, plan to fully use their newfound clout.

Biden is organizing up to a dozen hearings on the Iraq war, with US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called to testify. And Carl Levin, his counterpart on the Senate Armed Forces Committee, has said he plans to summon new Defense Secretary Robert Gates and other officials.

The financing of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars will also be debated in the new Congress as will Bush’s overall policies. The war in Iraq is costing an estimated eight billion dollars a month, sapping Bush’s approval rating and setting the stage for confrontation with Congress.

Senate Democrats also plan to revisit one of the most controversial issues of 2006 — the legal rights of detainees held in the “war on terror.”

On the economic front, the House of Representatives will have its hands full during its first 100 legislative hours as members work to fulfill their campaign promises, including increasing the federal minimum wage for the first time in 10 years. Bush has said he would approve a boost but wants it coupled with tax breaks to help small businesses offset the higher cost of hiring workers.

Despite the Democrats’ new authority in Congress, the president can still curtail their ambitions with a veto. Internal divisions within the party could also be harmful.

In the Senate, the party could also lose its one-vote majority in the event Senator Tim Johnson, who remains in critical condition more than two weeks after emergency surgery to repair a brain hemorrhage, passes away.

Although the Democrats enjoy a more comfortable majority in the lower house, several missteps by incoming speaker Nancy Pelosi have drawn criticism from within her own party and prompted questions about her ability to lead.

The new Congress is set to be sworn in on Thursday and Pelosi, the first female speaker of the US House of Representatives, has planned three days of concerts, church services and fund-raising events around her swearing in.

Following all the pomp and circumstance, legislators are set get down to work on January 9 with the first committee meetings and votes set to take place that week.

Copyright © 2007 Agence France Presse

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