Andrew Buncombe in Washington: Welcome to Nancy's house: How the Democrats swung it

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The Independent Online

The band in the corner was finishing a set of Bruce Springsteen covers in the ballroom of the Hyatt Regency hotel, located within salivating gaze of the brightly lit Capitol building.

Their final song was "Born to Run" and the singer belted out the words: "Baby this town rips the bones from your back. It's a death trap, it's a suicide rap."

As an observation of congressional Democrats' experience in Washington over the previous 12 years it was a pretty good fit, but the noisy and excited crowd knew that things were changing. Just minutes earlier, huge television screens had flashed up the confirmation that the Democrats had captured the House and that they were now awaiting the arrival of the woman who would become the new Speaker. A chant broke out: "Nancy, Nancy, Nancy."

Probably only in buttoned-down Washington do politicians get treated like rock stars, but that was certainly the welcome doled out to Nancy Pelosi in the early hours yesterday as Democrats roared for the 66-year-old who has made history by becoming the first female Speaker. She will now lead the party's legislative efforts and its opposition to the Bush administration.

"This is a great victory for the American people," she declared from the podium. "Tonight the American people have voted for change and they have voted for the Democrats to take our country in a new direction... We will do so working together with the administration and the Republicans in Congress in partnership, not in partisanship."

Mrs Pelosi, a tireless and successful fundraiser for the party, has vowed that within the first 100 hours of the next Congress the Democrats will pass six measures, politically popular and therefore difficult for President George Bush to veto. These include raising the minimum wage, lifting restrictions on federal funding for stem-cell research, making college tuition tax deductible and implementing the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission established by Mr Bush. They will also act to restrict the influence of lobbyists.

"We will restore civility, integrity, and fiscal responsibility to the House of Representatives," Mrs Pelosi, who easily won her own re-election battle in California's 8th District, wrote on a newspaper website ahead of the vote.

But analysts say that beyond that first flurry of reasonably straightforward initiatives, Democrats may face tougher times when they address issues on which there are different opinions within the party, such as immigration policy, tax cuts and abortion. A great deal will also depend on how much Mr Bush is willing to use his veto powers ­ a weapon he has used just once in the past six years.

"Whether it's sweeping tax reform, big initiatives on domestic programmes, we are going to have divided government," Robert Greenstein, director of the Centre on Budget and Policy Priorities, a policy group, told Bloomberg News. "I don't think big stuff is going to happen. "

Mrs Pelosi has already ruled out the possibility that Democrats will seek to impeach Mr Bush over the war in Iraq ­ despite comments from John Conyers, who will now lead the House Judiciary Committee and who has said he will investigate such a possibility. She has also ruled out introducing tax cuts for America's middle class.

But Democrats have vowed to do more to hold the Bush administration to account and as such Mr Bush's last two years are likely to see a raft of congressional inquiries into issues such as military spending in Iraq and the award of contracts for the reconstruction of New Orleans.

But those considerations will be for the days ahead. For the near-delirious Democrats who had gathered on Tuesday night, it was enough to drink in their victory, believing that it was a sign of things yet to come in 2008.

The other key issues

Abortion

In South Dakota voters rejected by 55-45 per cent a measure that would have banned abortion in every circumstance except being a threat to the life of the pregnant woman. "We believe South Dakotans can make these decisions themselves. They don't have to have somebody telling them what that decision needs to be," Jan Nicolay, a leader of the state's anti-ban campaign, said.

Gay Marriage

Arizona voted against a measure that would have defined marriage as a one-man, one-woman institution, becoming the first state to defeat an amendment to ban gay marriage. So far, 20 states have voted to ban gay marriage.

Stem Cell Research

In Missouri voters narrowly passed a measure to allow stem cell research. The actor Michael J Fox, who suffers from Parkinson's disease, had campaigned on the issue, while several sports stars spoke out against it.

Immigration

Arizona voters passed four measures considered by critics to be unfairly discriminatory towards illegal immigrants.

Marijuana

Nevada and Colorado voters rejected measures that would have legalised possession of up to an ounce of marijuana. In South Dakota, voters defeated a proposal that would have allowed marijuana use for some medical purposes

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