Rupert Cornwell: Out of America

The 110th Congress convenes this week, and this time the Republicans won't be calling the shots

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The leavers' last belongings have long since been moved out, and the new boys are already exploring their new surrounds, trying to act as if they've been there for ever. The incoming head prefects have bagged the best rooms, and picked the captains of the various school teams. All, in short, is ready for the new term at that celebrated academy of the legislative and political arts known as the United States Congress. But this is a new term with a difference. For the first time in more than a decade, the prefects will be Democrats.

The 110th Congress that officially convenes on Thursday brings back what American voters seem to like best - divided government. For the first time since he took office almost six years ago, George W Bush and his Republican party will not have things their own way, and the White House no longer has that convenient rubber stamp at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. For the Democrats, on the other hand, recapture of both House and Senate at the 7 November midterm elections has given them the first taste of real power since the Clinton era. And they intend to make full use of it, both in symbol and in deed.

Take, for instance, Nancy Pelosi, whose fondness for pastel shades belies her sharp political elbows, and who is expected to become the first female Speaker in US history, just two proverbial heartbeats from the presidency. Once upon a time Democratic speakers were happy to use offices in the back of the Capitol building facing the Supreme Court. Not so Ms Pelosi, who has commandeered the handsome premises previously occupied by her Republican predecessor Dennis Hastert, complete with balcony overlooking the great vista of the National Mall. The message is plain. The Democrats are back and want everyone to know it.

Make no mistake, 7 November was a sea change. The net Democratic gain of 30 seats may be numerically less than the 52-seat swing to the Republicans in 1994, the year of the Newt Gingrich revolution. But that was before both parties drastically reduced the number of vulnerable seats by gerrymandering district boundaries to protect incumbents. The upheaval eight weeks ago, brought about by a combination of a desperately unpopular war, a ruling party that reeked of corruption and a simple desire of voters to "give the other guy a chance", was at least as emphatic as that of 1994. It may be even more consequential.

The first stage will be the easiest. For incoming presidents, 100 days constitute the first traditional milestone. Ms Pelosi wants to be measured by her first 100 hours, a bare three or four weeks' worth of congressional business. By then she wants to have pushed through tough new rules to curb ties between lobbyists and congressmen (at the root of the Jack Abramoff scandal that so damaged the Republicans last time), and to have passed legislation raising the minimum wage for the first time since 1997, implementing the unfulfilled recommendations of the 2004 report by the 9/11 commission, and expanding stem-cell research.

The programme adds up to a new Democratic manifesto: help the little man, keep the country safe, and let science, not religious dogma, determine the limits of healthcare. At the same time, the party will, as Ms Pelosi likes to say, "drain the swamp" left by 12 years of Republican control of the House. For a President with an approval rating of barely 35 per cent, the message is plain: veto such measures if you dare.

The chances are that Mr Bush won't, at least early on. One of the things about new terms is that, for a while at least, people are on their best behaviour. Bipartisanship is the word on everyone's lips, at the White House and in the incoming leadership on Capitol Hill. The Democrats have to prove they can handle power responsibly. Mr Bush has to be careful as well. If he refuses to compromise, the real risk exists that many Republican senators and congressmen will feel they have a better chance of electoral survival by striking an alliance with majority Democrats on key issues than in persisting with unquestioning support for a lame-duck President.

But any sweetness and light will not last long. Different in so many ways, Mr Bush and Ms Pelosi are united by their stubbornness and their inability to forget slights, real or imagined. The 2008 presidential campaign that is already under way will exert its own centrifugal forces, not least because half a dozen of the most prominent contenders are senators. True, the upper chamber is better mannered than the House. But there, too, the Democrats are savouring control (albeit a control hinging on the well-being of South Dakota's Tim Johnston, still in a critical if stable condition after his quasi-stroke three weeks ago). Harry Reid, who as majority leader will be Ms Pelosi's equivalent in the Senate, is soft- spoken but hard as nails - as befits the son of a Nevada miner. He, no less than she, will be no pushover for the White House.

Then there are the new Democratic team captains, the incoming committee chairmen in both House and Senate, who wield enormous power under the US legislative system. This week, in the House in particular, sees the return of the "old bulls", men such as Charles Rangel who takes charge of the Ways and Means committee, pivotal for tax policy, and John Conyers and John Dingell, heading the Judiciary and Commerce committees respectively.

They are all liberals, and their average age is 77. Mr Conyers has apparently been persuaded to give up his notion of launching impeachment proceedings against the President over Iraq. But finally the Bush administration will have a taste of the investigative medicine a Republican Congress used to dish out to Bill Clinton - this time over pre-war intelligence and post-war reconstruction in Iraq, the handling of Hurricane Katrina, and its cosseting of the oil companies. One way and another, as headmasters like to say, the new term will be exciting.

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