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WASHINGTON — Tuesday’s big win in the House by the Democrats likely won’t mean any immediate changes for troops serving downrange, according to political experts.

But whether they’ll feel like changes are coming is another story.

“The reality on the ground will be very little difference in places like Iraq and Afghanistan,” said Danielle Pletka, vice president for defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. “The psychological impact? That could be more serious. The impressions this leaves on the troops can’t be discounted.”

On Wednesday, President Bush said he looked forward to working with Democrats to find ways to win in Iraq, but said that despite the replacement of his secretary of defense, troops and the Iraqi people should not expect wholesale changes to policy.

“I’m going to continue making decisions based on what I think is right for the country,” Bush said. “I’ve never been the kind of person to make decisions based on short-term popularity.

“If [the Democrats] goal is success, we can work together. If the goal is get out (of Iraq) now, regardless of consequence, we can’t.”

Still, Bush can expect growing pressure to change strategy if the situation doesn’t improve, despite the experts’ predictions.

Recommendations from a special commission headed by former Secretary of State James Baker and former Rep. Lee Hamilton, scheduled for release in December or January, could provide a rallying point for advocates of change.

During the campaign Republicans, including the president, repeated charges that the Democrats’ ideas for Iraq were short-sighted and wrong.

“They’ve got a principle around which they’re organized, which is, ‘It’s too tough, get out before the job is done,’” Bush said at a campaign rally in Florida on Monday. “That’s what they believe. … Harsh criticism is not a plan for victory. Second-guessing is not a strategy.”

Even with control of the House, Democrats who have publicly called for major strategy shifts and a drawdown of U.S. troops abroad will have few opportunities to push for those plans, according to Christopher Preble, director of the Cato Institute’s foreign policy department.

The president still sets foreign policy for the nation, and he has made it clear that new criticism from Capitol Hill won’t affect his plans. Just three weeks ago, after a high-profile meeting with defense experts and military leaders, White House officials dismissed calls for major changes in the near future on policies about Iraq and Afghanistan.

The U.S. Embassy in Iraq issued a statement Wednesday promising no dramatic changes in America’s Iraq policy following the Democratic win.

Congress’ roleTraditionally Congress’ role in foreign affairs has been reactionary, according to Stephen Knott, an associate professor and researcher at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center for Public Affairs. Lawmakers regularly pass regulations and guidelines for plans drawn up by the executive branch, and rarely do they completely reverse the president’s decisions on military or diplomatic actions overseas.

And, even if Democrats win the Senate and take control of both chambers, they won’t have a veto-proof majority in either chamber. That means the president will have the final say on any legislation suggested by his political opponents.

Instead, Preble said he expects plenty of oversight hearings on the cost of the wars, the overall security situation in Iraq and the intelligence errors of 2003.

“Republicans have been reluctant to exercise this authority, but new leadership of key congressional committees may usher in a round of high-profile public hearings,” he said.

Vocal opponents of Bush’s Iraq policies, such as Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., are expected to hold key leadership posts in the House now and help set that chamber’s legislative agenda.

Meanwhile both the Democrat in line to lead the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Ike Skelton of Missouri, and the man who will likely take over the international relations committee, Rep. Tom Lantos of California, have been publicly critical of the president’s decisions on troop levels.

Pletka said even if those Democratic leaders can’t push through major changes, she expects their anti-war rhetoric to increase dramatically, which could have a discouraging effect on troops.

“This seems like a thumbs-up for the Democrats by the U.S. public,” she said. “This gives them an impression of a mandate, so they’ll keep up that opposition.

“Look at the Kerry statement last week. That had no real impact on operations, but it certainly upset many troops. It’s demoralizing to them and veterans, and we could see that if the Democrats decide they want to attack something the troops believe is a noble cause.”

Before the election, Republican officials warned that Democrats dissatisfied with Iraq could cut military funding to limit military operations overseas.

But Luis Miranda, spokesman for the Democratic National Committee, said that won’t happen, noting that “our complaints aren’t with the troops,” and the experts noted that such a move is unlikely because it would severely hurt their political ambitions for 2008.

Miranda said the new House will focus on their “oversight” role, with a specific focus on the role of contractors and the funds they’ve received for reconstruction work, but even he downplayed how much the Democrats can expect.

“One of the challenges we see is that the president will still be the president,” Miranda said. “We’ll be able to apply much more pressure, but there’s a limit to what we’ll be able to achieve.”


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