Democrats Preparing to Take Control of House, Push New Agenda
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JIM LEHRER: Defense Secretary Rumsfeld resigned today, as Democrats celebrated sweeping victories in Congress. They recaptured the House — and possibly the Senate — riding a wave of discontent with the war in Iraq.
Today, at a White House news conference, President Bush announced the change at the Pentagon.
GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States: I have been talking with Don Rumsfeld over a period of time about fresh perspective. He likes to call it fresh eyes. He himself understands that Iraq is not working well enough, fast enough. He and I both agreed in our meeting yesterday that it was appropriate that I accept his resignation.
JIM LEHRER: Mr. Bush chose Robert Gates, a former director of the CIA, to succeed Rumsfeld. The president said he had planned to make the move no matter what happened in the elections. Rumsfeld said his six years in the job had been “quite a time,” and he acknowledged he faced intense criticism.
DONALD RUMSFELD, Former U.S. Secretary of Defense: The great respect that I have for your leadership, Mr. President, in this little-understood, unfamiliar war, the first war of the 21st century. It is not well-known. It was not well-understood. It is complex for people to comprehend. And I know with certainty that, over time, the contributions you’ve made will be recorded by history.
JIM LEHRER: Gates has already served under six presidents. He led the CIA in the early 1990s under the first President Bush. He’s currently president of Texas A&M University, and he’s on a commission that’s due to report soon on U.S. policy in Iraq. He spoke at a White House ceremony.
ROBERT GATES, Secretary of Defense-Designate: Because our long-term strategic interests and our national and homeland security are at risk, because so many of America’s sons and daughters in our Armed Forces are in harm’s way, I did not hesitate when the president asked me to return to duty.
JIM LEHRER: The Gates nomination is subject to Senate approval. Leading Democrats welcomed the announcement, but they said it has to be more than a new face on an old policy. Several top Republicans said they’re optimistic the move will lead to a re-examination of strategy on Iraq.
Across the country today, Democrats counted the gains that brought them back to power in Congress. The NewsHour’s congressional correspondent Kwame Holman has the details.
Speaker of the House
KWAME HOLMAN: California Democrat Nancy Pelosi arrived at the Capitol this morning, poised to become the first female speaker in history. Inside, and before a packed press conference, she addressed a subject that dominated the fall campaign.
REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA), Minority Leader: Nowhere was the call for a new direction more clear from the American people than in the war in Iraq. This is something that we must work together with the president.
We know that "stay the course" is not working, has not made our country safer. It has not honored our commitment to our troops, and it has not brought stability to the region. We must not continue on this catastrophic path.
KWAME HOLMAN: Democrats needed to pick up 15 House seats to claim the majority in the next Congress; they took at least 27, with more than a dozen other races still undecided. Nineteen sitting Republicans were defeated, and at least eight open seats, which had been vacated by Republicans, also went to the Democrats.
In the process, several seasoned Republicans were caught up in the Democratic wave: Jim Leach of Iowa, after 30 years; Clay Shaw of Florida, after 26 years; and Nancy Johnson of Connecticut, after 24 years.
Scandal also hurt GOP candidates in heavily Republican districts, including two in eastern Pennsylvania: 10-term Republican Curt Weldon, under investigation by the FBI for steering contracts to family members; and four-term member Don Sherwood, who had admitted an extramarital affair.
In Ohio, Democrat Zack Space easily filled the seat vacated by Republican Bob Ney, who had pleaded guilty to federal corruption charges due to his ties to former lobbyist Jack Abramoff. In Florida, Democrat Tim Mahoney narrowly won the seat vacated in September by Republican Mark Foley, who resigned following the disclosure of inappropriate e-mails he sent to male former House pages.
And in Texas, former Congressman Nick Lampson took the seat long held by Republican Tom DeLay, the former House majority leader whose ethics problems led him to resign in June.
The changes already have set the table for leadership fights in both parties. Current speaker Dennis Hastert, for one, announced today he would not run for minority leader.
In the Senate, Democrats may have reached their expectations, possibly winning majority control, by combining victories in five Republican-held seats, in Missouri, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Rhode Island and Montana. Democrats would need a sixth to solidify their majority, and that seat, Virginia, still is contested.
Republican Senator George Allen trails his Democratic challenger, former Navy Secretary Jim Webb, by just under 7,000 votes. They appeared to be headed toward a lengthy vote recount that could keep control of the new Senate unresolved for weeks.
The Montana race was decided only late today, when vote totals showed Democrat Jon Tester had, indeed, prevailed over three-term Republican Conrad Burns by slightly more than 3,000 votes.
JON TESTER (D), Senator-Elect, Montana: And most of all, to the people of the state of Montana, thank you very much for putting your trust in me.
KWAME HOLMAN: And Democrats claimed victory early this morning in Missouri, where State Auditor Claire McCaskill outlasted one-term Republican Jim Talent.
CLAIRE MCCASKILL (D), Senator-Elect, Missouri: Tonight we have heard the voices of Missourians, and they have said, "We want change."
KWAME HOLMAN: Among the other new faces coming to the Senate, Bob Casey, whose commanding win in Pennsylvania ousted conservative Republican Rick Santorum.
BOB CASEY, JR. (D), Senator-Elect, Pennsylvania: Tonight, I believe -- I believe in my heart tonight -- that Pennsylvania is where the new direction for America begins.
KWAME HOLMAN: In Ohio, Democratic Congressman Sherrod Brown, running a very populist campaign, easily defeated two-term Republican Mike DeWine.
SHERROD BROWN (D), Senator-Elect, Ohio: Today in Ohio, in the middle of America, the middle class won.
KWAME HOLMAN: And in Rhode Island, Democratic Attorney General Sheldon Whitehouse tossed out one-term Republican Lincoln Chafee.
SHELDON WHITEHOUSE (D), Senator-Elect, Rhode Island: I also want to thank the people of Rhode Island for putting their trust in me. It means the world to me that you have done this.
KWAME HOLMAN: Republicans in Tennessee did manage to hold onto the seat being vacated by Majority Leader Bill Frist. There, former Chattanooga Mayor Bob Corker fended off a strong challenge from Memphis Congressman Harold Ford.
BOB CORKER (R), Senator-Elect, Tennessee: The people of Tennessee have spoken once again, and I love what they have said. Thank you.
KWAME HOLMAN: But Democrats retained all of their Senate seats, with, among others, Congressman Ben Cardin winning the open contest in Maryland, and Senator Bob Menendez hanging on in New Jersey.
As for the highly watched but safely Democratic seat in Connecticut, Joseph Lieberman won a fourth term in the Senate running as an independent. The new Congress will be sworn in, in January.