US voters go to the polls Tuesday in an election that may shift the congressional balance of power and change the government's policies in the Middle East. After 12 years in the majority, Republican leaders are anticipating losing at least 15 seats in the House of Representatives, which would bring the chamber under Democratic control for the first time since 1994. The balance of power in the Senate, where 33 out of 100 seats are up for grabs, remains too close to call.
Our World: A midterm correction, or capitulation? (column)
A great deal of the campaign has been focused on the war in Iraq, with Democratic candidates criticizing President George W. Bush's strategy and Republican lawmakers who support it. But it remains unclear how much of an impact new Democratic legislators will have on the Bush administration's plans for Iraq and other Middle East hot spots.
Vice President Dick Cheney, speaking Sunday on ABC's This Week, said the administration's plans for the conflict would not be altered if the Democrats gain control of Congress.
"I think it'll have some effect, perhaps, in the Congress, but the president's made clear what his objective is: It's victory in Iraq, and it's full speed ahead on that basis," Cheney said. "And that's exactly what we're going to do."
Democrats, like Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the election results would foster a more "open dialogue" on foreign policy.
"If we make gains in the House and Senate, whether we win them or not, I think you'll see a lot of Republicans willing to join me and others in a plan for Iraq that is a rational way in which we can responsibly bring home more troops and leave a stable Iraq behind," Biden said on CBS's Face the Nation Sunday. "But it requires a fundamental change in the course we're on."
Throughout his final campaign swing, Bush told audiences that leaving Iraq and ignoring Iran, as he accused the Democrats of suggesting, would put Israel in danger.
"They would like to get a hold of oil resources so they could then say to the West, 'Abandon your alliance with Israel or withdraw from the Middle East, otherwise you're going to be facing highpriced oil, and we'll bring your economy down,'" he said Monday while campaigning for Republican candidates in Nebraska.
US policy toward Israel is not expected to shift dramatically if Democrats take control of Congress. While Republican leaders have made efforts to overtly back Israel in recent years, analysts point to historic support for Israel among Democrats. In recent weeks, Democrats have been working to counter concerns they would balance support for Israel and the Palestinians or that Democrats would name committee chairmen who are seen as traditionally unsupportive of the Jewish state.
"There will be some Democratic chairmen who may not share all my views or have as clear a perspective on Israel as I do," Rep. Henry Waxman (D-California), a Jewish lawmaker, said in a recent on-line chat with Jewish voters, sponsored by the House Democratic caucus. "But they will not be chairing committees dealing with Israel and the Middle East."
The American Israel Public Affairs Committee also weighed in. In a statement last week, it said, "Strong bipartisan support for Israel exists in both parties and, regardless of who is in control, that support will remain steadfast."
"AIPAC works closely with leaders on both sides of the aisle, each deeply committed to strengthening the bonds between the United States and Israel," the statement continued. "No matter who wins the upcoming elections, AIPAC is confident that Congress will continue to support a strong Israel and a strong relationship between the United States and its most reliable ally in the Middle East."
In the House of Representatives, Democrats are predicted to win at least 10 of the 15 seats they need to gain majority control, according to an analysis by Congressional Quarterly, with another 23 seats too close to call.
Analysts suggest the Democrats will not lose any of the seats they currently hold.
If the Democrats win control, Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, currently the House minority leader, would likely become the next House speaker.
Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, who has led Democratic support for Israel in the House, is expected to seek the role of majority leader, and Rep. Rahm Emanuel of Illinois, whose Israeli father fought in the pre-state Zionist underground, is expected to challenge several candidates for majority whip. Emanuel has received praise for his role as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, charged with raising money for candidates.
The Senate race, where Democrats need six seats to garner control, is considered much tighter. Democrats are expected to pick up seats in Ohio and Pennsylvania, and likely also in Rhode Island. Other seats, including those in Montana, Missouri, Tennessee and Virginia, are neck-and-neck. Democrats must also hold on to seats in Maryland and New Jersey, where Republican challengers have remained strong.
If Democrats pick up five seats, there will be a 50-50 tie in the Senate. The two parties would likely create a power-sharing structure, similar to that which occurred in 2001, with Cheney holding the tie-breaking vote.
Matthew E. Berger is also a correspondent for Congressional Quarterly.