Rupert Cornwell: Out of America

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

Share

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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Energy Markets Analyst

£400000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: Job Title: Energy Markets An...

Junior Web Analyst – West Sussex – Up to £35k DOE

£30000 - £35000 Per Annum Plus excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions...

Nursery Manager

£22000 - £23000 per annum: Randstad Education Bristol: We are currently recrui...

Web Analyst – Permanent – Up to £40k - London

£35000 - £40000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: We are currently r...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Letter from the Personal Finance Editor: Cutting out the middle man could spell disaster for employees and consumers alike

Simon Read
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch  

Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes tell you what to think. Don't let them

Memphis Barker
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week