WASHINGTON — A day after discontent with the Iraq war prompted sweeping election defeats for the Republican Party, President Bush on Wednesday acknowledged voters had given him "a thumping" and said the chief architect of his military strategy, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, had resigned.
The announcement came hours after Democrats won a majority in the House for the first time in 12 years and seemed all but certain to take control of the Senate -- barring unexpected changes in the vote totals in two states.
In the past, Bush repeatedly defended Rumsfeld, even as progress in the war stalled and as the Defense secretary, known for his confident and bristling manner, piled up critics in both parties. But on Wednesday, the president said he and Rumsfeld agreed that the Pentagon needed "fresh eyes."
"He himself understands that Iraq is not working well enough, fast enough," Bush said. He said he would nominate Robert M. Gates -- who served as CIA director under Bush's father -- as his new Defense secretary.
News that one of the most powerful figures in Washington was leaving office came as GOP hopes faded that they could win two close Senate races, in Virginia and Montana, that would decide control of the Senate.
Virginia officials had not confirmed final results, but the Associated Press declared that Democratic candidate Jim Webb had pulled off an upset victory based on new data from election officials in all 134 voting localities. But GOP Sen. George Allen refused to concede. His aides said they wanted to wait for election officials to complete a routine review of the vote totals, expected this week.
Earlier in the day, Montana officials declared Democrat Jon Tester the Senate race winner, but GOP Sen. Conrad Burns had not given in.
In Washington, Democratic leaders were expected to hold a news conference today to celebrate their apparent victories in the two races -- which would give them 51 Senate seats to the Republicans' 49. The party has not held both chambers of Congress since 1994.
"I'm obviously disappointed with the outcome of the election," Bush said. "And as the head of the Republican Party, I share a large part of the responsibility."
As House Republicans began to grapple with their loss of at least 28 seats, Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) said he would quit the party's leadership. That set off a struggle to lead the new House minority party and sparked a round of recriminations over the cause of the defeat.
GOP losses in the House could climb, since about half a dozen races are not yet final.
Bush said he was surprised by how many seats his party lost, even if many defeats were narrow. He spoke at a White House news conference with a chastened tone. "If you look at race by race, it was close," he said. "The cumulative effect, however, was not too close. It was a thumping. But nevertheless, the people expect us to work together."
The ritual of postelection fence-mending began early Wednesday, when Bush began dialing congressional leaders, including Democratic chieftains he rarely consulted while they were in the minority.
"I welcomed the president's call as a sign of respect for the votes of the American people," said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), the likely next speaker, who was sleeping when Bush called at 7:15 a.m. She and other congressional leaders are to meet with Bush over lunch today.
At her inaugural news conference as presumptive speaker, Pelosi tried to set a conciliatory tone. But she said the election returns were a mandate for change in Iraq.
Bush insisted that the personnel change had been in the works even before he had learned of the election returns.
"After a series of thoughtful conversations, Secretary Rumsfeld and I agreed that the timing is right for a change of leadership at the Pentagon," he said.
That marked a 180-degree turn from Bush's comments to reporters a week ago, when he insisted that Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney would remain in the administration for the rest of his tenure.
Rumsfeld's resignation was welcomed by his critics -- Democrats who opposed Bush's Iraq policy as well as Republican allies who faulted the secretary's handling of the Iraq mission.
"This important change offers the administration and Congress a fresh opportunity to examine all aspects of our strategy and tactics in Iraq, and make whatever changes are necessary to succeed there," said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a war supporter who has clashed with Rumsfeld.
A key question is whether the shift in Pentagon leadership signals a willingness make policy changes as well. Bush said he was open to a "different approach," but only if the goal was victory in Iraq.
"If the goal is success, then we can work together," he said of the new Democratic majority. "If the goal is 'get out now, regardless,' then that's going to be hard to work together."
However, the election is likely to intensify the pressure for a shift in Bush's Iraq policy.