Most of Australia was still on holidays, but in the US last week was one of the most important days on the political calendar: the first sitting of the new Congress, elected two months earlier. This time it was especially important, with the Democrats taking control of both houses for the first time since 1994.

Most attention has focused on the election of Nancy Pelosi as speaker of the House of Representatives, the first woman to hold the post. In the words of Amanda Marcotte at Pandagon: “The worst fears of those who fought against women’s suffrage have come true. And thank god for it.”

Both sides have made the ritual promises of bipartisanship, but this looks like being one of the worst periods of conflict between White House and Congress for a long time. The Republicans have had things very much their own way for the last four years, and the stridency of Republican attacks on Pelosi betrays not just a symbolic fear of emasculation but a very practical fear of political accountability.

The Democrats’ problem is that their majority, especially in the Senate, is too small to effect any serious change. However, they will be able to subpoena officials to face inquiries into the Bush administration’s activities, and will have the power, if they are willing to use it, to block administration initiatives.

The president’s apparent intention to send even more troops to Iraq will therefore be a real test of Democrat backbone. Troops need money, and Congress could stop the additional deployment by refusing to fund it. But although Pelosi has promised Bush’s plans will face “the harshest scrutiny”, such a drastic step is still regarded as unlikely.

As to what the Iraqis think, their national security adviser apparently told CNN that “We are more than happy to ask for more troops if the military commanders need it”. But president Bush seems to have ensured that by the simple tactic of removing the military commanders who told him more troops would serve no useful purpose.

Peter Fray

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