WASHINGTON — A Democratic capture of the House or Senate on Tuesday would generate powerful pressure on President Bush -- from Republicans as well as Democrats -- for a fundamental change of direction in the increasingly unpopular Iraq war.
With polls casting the midterm election as a referendum on Iraq, a Democratic victory in either chamber would give party lawmakers a national platform with which to prod the president, through public hearings and investigations into how the war has been conducted.
For Republicans, a significant Democratic advance would be proof that voters are fed up with the current course of the war and expect changes from the nation's leaders.
While Bush still will hold the lead role in foreign policy, a Democratic win would be a sign of an overpowering public sentiment "that Republicans here won't overlook," a senior GOP congressional staffer said. "The White House will have to adjust to that reality too," said the aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity when discussing party strategy.
"It will be a new day," said Marshall Wittmann, a former aide to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) who is now with the moderate Democratic Leadership Council. "The real factor [Bush] has to fear is a collapse of support among Republicans, as well as Democrats."
Vice President Dick Cheney, in an interview with ABC's "This Week" to be broadcast Sunday, acknowledged that Tuesday's vote "will have some effect, perhaps, in the Congress." But Cheney pointed out that Bush is not up for reelection this year and is proceeding "full steam ahead" toward his goal of securing a victory in Iraq.
However, Wittmann said that while Republican pressure on the president so far has been muted by party loyalty, a Democratic victory would be "a psychological blow" that would bring expressions of unhappiness from Republicans who don't want to be saddled with the war going into the 2008 election.
Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), ranking minority member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, told reporters recently that a Democratic victory in either chamber "would have a huge motivating force on the president to change course." Levin added that "more and more Republicans would join with Democrats in trying to get the administration" to change direction.
At the same time, lawmakers and experts don't expect Democratic victories to force a quick withdrawal of troops from Iraq -- even though polling suggests that is what many Americans expect.
A New York Times-CBS poll released this week found 75% of respondents believed that U.S. troops would be taken out of Iraq more swiftly under a Democratic-led Congress. The same poll found 29% of Americans supported Bush's leadership of the war, matching the lowest point of his presidency.
Bush and Republicans would strongly resist any withdrawal effort, and Democrats remain deeply divided on the issue of a rapid pullout. Many Democrats, eager to avoid possible future charges that their party forced a "defeat" in the war, have ruled out any cutoff of funding of the kind that halted Vietnam War spending in the 1970s.
A Democratic win also would increase the visibility and weight of a congressionally appointed panel that since March has been reviewing the Bush administration's war strategy.
The panel, co-chaired by former Secretary of State James A. Baker III and former Democratic Rep. Lee Hamilton of Indiana, is expected to issue recommendations soon that will call for a new direction. The report is expected to propose a path to an eventual withdrawal but not call for an immediate departure. Congressional hearings on the report, possibly in both chambers, are expected.
Although Democrats have signaled that they intend to investigate the conduct of the war, including pre-war planning and management of the reconstruction, some analysts predicted that they will avoid going too far, lest they alienate the public.
The public "will balk if oversight becomes overzealous," Lee Feinstein of the Council on Foreign Relations said in a posting on the organization's website. "If oversight becomes 'gotcha,' that's a dangerous place for Democrats to be."
Feinstein noted that House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), who is in line to become House speaker if Democrats win, has said that any committee investigations of administration actions would require approval from the House leadership.
Feinstein, who was a Pentagon and State Department official during the Clinton administration, predicted that the election could cause lawmakers to try to work out a bipartisan solution to the war -- both because of the issue's importance and out of a desire to neutralize it before the presidential election in 2008.
Some analysts, including Wittmann, expect that Democrats would use any new leverage to push Bush to replace Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld; his ouster has been demanded by a growing list of Republicans as well as Democrats.