Eager Democrats line up to occupy positions of power

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Congress is to be taken over by a different set of names and faces who will lead the two chambers as well as the powerful committees that control much of the government's business.

Some of the positions will be filled by high-profile Democrats. Others will be taken over by politicians little known to the public, who will, nevertheless, wield considerable power.

Perhaps best-known among them is Nancy Pelosi, from California, who in January will become the first female Speaker. While she and President Bush spoke of each other in barbed terms during the election campaign ­ he called her "a secret admirer of tax cuts" and she described him as " dangerous" and an "emperor with no clothes" ­ they have since been talking in terms of conciliation and co-operation for the final two years of Mr Bush's term.

Yesterday, having had breakfast with the outgoing Republican congressional leadership, Mr Bush had lunch with Mrs Pelosi where the two discussed the next two years. Mr Bush's communications director, Dan Bartlett, admitted the President's lunch was not necessarily destined to be good for his boss's digestion.

The senior Democrat in the Senate will remain Harry Reid, the solid but unexciting senator from Nevada, who will become the majority leader. " In Iraq and here at home, Americans have made clear they are tired of the failures of the past six years," he said yesterday.

In both houses of Congress there will be a new list of committee chairmen, among them Charlie Rangel, who will head the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, which controls the purse strings; John Conyers, who will head the Judiciary Committee; and the investigative-minded Henry Waxman from California, who will head the Government Reform Committee.

Mr Rangel, whose committee will oversee tax legislation, said his priority was getting taxpayers to pay the money they already owe to the government. He declined to discuss the possibility of new taxes. "My only fear is that Republicans might call this an increase in taxes," he said.

Two of the most important committees in the Senate will be headed by Joe Biden, who will lead the Foreign Relations Committee and who could yet make a bid for the presidency, and the liberal Carl Levin, who will head the Armed Services Committee.

Senator Patrick Leahy from Vermont will head the Judiciary Committee while the veteran Massachusetts senator Edward Kennedy will head the Committee on Health, Education, Labour, and Pensions, which would be involved in pushing any rise in the minimum wage.

An increase from $5.15 (£2.70) an hour to $7.25 (£3.80) is one of the measures Mrs Pelosi has promised to get passed in the first 100 hours of the new Congress. Republicans have previously blocked all such efforts but, on Tuesday, voters in six states backed measures to enact such an increase.

Other issues the Democrats intend to pursue include energy independence, stem-cell research and lower prices for medicine under the Medicare prescription drug programme.

The Senate Intelligence Committee will be chaired by Jay Rockefeller, the great-grandson of the oil billionaire John, who has vice-chairman since 2003. The Appropriations Committee will be led by Robert Byrd, 88, the longest-serving senator in history.

The Democrats also face some real challenges in Congress, particularly on those issues on which they are divided such as the war in Iraq.During the campaign, the Democrats skilfully avoided tying themselves to any fixed policy other than to criticise the Republicans. They will be under pressure to offer a more focused approach.