Bipartisanship Ho?

WASHINGTON, Nov. 8, 2006 — -- Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John Warner held a news conference on Oct. 5 to say that Iraq was "drifting sideways" and that bold action would be required to save the U.S. effort there.

At the time he was becoming one of the most vocal elected Republicans to express deep concern about the situation in Iraq and the U.S. strategy.

"I felt strongly then in what I said, and I did not have in my mind what has happened in the past 48 hours," Warner said today from the same podium.

What has happened, of course, is what could be a watershed victory by the Democrats, who took control of the House of Representatives for the first time in 12 years Tuesday night and AP has projected they will take the Senate.

It was the frustration of Republicans like Warner and American voters that led to the rebuke for the president's party.

So Democrats were ebullient as they trickled in this morning, which started with bleary-eyed morning news conferences and photo ops touting their victories and publicly offering a warm and bipartisan hand to the White House.

"Democrats are going to treat Republicans differently than Republicans have treated Democrats," said Senate Minority -- perhaps soon to maybe be Majority -- Leader Harry Reid, who also called on President Bush to convene a bipartisan Iraq summit.

But some air was sucked out of the happy balloon in which Democrats were floating when Bush did something he hadn't done in six years of Republican dominance in Washington: He gave the Democrats what they had been asking for and got rid of Donald Rumsfeld, who may yet become the longest-serving defense secretary ever.

Rumsfeld will edge out Robert McNamara, the architect of Vietnam, that other years-long politically divisive war of the last 50 years, if he can make it through late December before his successor is confirmed.

But it's not likely he will make the record.

Even though the Democrats will take over the Senate, and thus the confirmation process, come Jan. 3, Reid and Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan both said they would work to get Bush's nominee, former CIA Director Robert Gates, confirmed soon.

Levin, the ranking Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, said it could happen during the lame duck session that started today.

"If we can get out questions to Mr. Gates and have our questions answered, given that, we should expedite hearings for Mr. Gates and we would not hold them up for any reason that I can foresee," Levin said.

At first blush, Democrats did not seem to have a problem with Gates, who served as CIA director under the first President Bush and is currently president of Texas A&M.

Plus, delaying the confirmation of a secretary of defense in a time of war would not go over very well with those voters who just gave them control of the Congress.

Getting rid of Rumsfeld was not an expected maneuver by the president -- just last week, pre-election Bush pledged that Rumsfeld would have a job as long as Bush did.

But less than 12 hours after the last polls closed in Hawaii, that promise was broken in the face of wide Democratic gains that gave them control of the House and potentially the Senate, depending on the outcome of the Virginia Senate race, where they hold a slim lead.

"Sure, we were surprised," said Reid's spokesman, Jim Manley. "The president has demonstrated time and again that he is a very stubborn man who is unwilling to admit mistakes. For months not only Democrats, but Republicans as well, have called for Rumsfeld's resignation, and he has stoutly resisted those requests."

Democrats rebounded quickly. By early afternoon, happy photo ops on the election had turned into conference calls with reporters to comment on Rumsfeld.

"The elections held yesterday [Tuesday] had a message heard round the world, and they are the exception to the 'all politics is local' rule and was obviously a national political judgment by the American people," Levin said.

Rumsfeld's ouster -- long sought by Democrats and some moderate Republican candidates who must now be ruing the White House for not making the announcement one week ago to boost Republican chances in the elections -- will not bring back any of the seats Republicans lost on Tuesday.

"The reason why is I didn't want to inject a major decision about this war in the final days of a campaign," Bush said at a midday news conference.

Given that Warner had tacitly asked for a change of course by the administration before Nov. 7, he was asked whether the White House could have saved the election by firing him sooner.

"I haven't had a chance to consider it," he said. "Let history be the judge of that."

Manley said that ultimately, the resignation of Rumsfeld was only a symbolic step. More concessions will have to be made by the president to satisfy Democrats' requirements for a new Iraq policy.

Gates' nomination to head the CIA in 1991 was eventually successful, but remembered by all involved as a contentious affair with interparty bickering.

Warner knew Gates when he was director of the CIA under the first President Bush and when Warner sat on the Senate Intelligence Committee that confirmed him.

He said that Gates would bring "his own set of ideas" and "is a tremendous student of doing is homework."

In the waning days of the 109th Congress -- and potentially the waning days of Republican control in the Senate -- Warner could usher a new secretary of defense into the Pentagon.

But Warner made no promises.

Gates is apparently still in the process of a background check and financial disclosure.

Warner was already planning to hear from Gen. John Abizaid and others on the Iraq situation next week. It is unclear whether that hearing will still occur.

"The president chose wisely," Warner said. "The president realizes certainly this election documented the fact that there's a great deal of concern, deep concern among the people of the United States with regard to the conflicts both primarily in Iraq, but let us not lose sight of Afghanistan, because that's a very serious situation."

Even today, Warner said "the public is quite accurate in its assessment."

While Warner said he did not feel the Gates nomination was a harbinger of a wide and sweeping change in Iraq policy by the United States, he did say that with the forthcoming Iraq Study Group Report and now a new secretary of defense, he was satisfied that the White House was reacting to the public and "there is going to be a convergence here."