The battle for the House and Senate looms large with the arrival of the new year, as opposition mounts to the Bush administration agenda. While some pundits give only a small chance for Democrats to regain control of Congress in November’s elections, the shifting mood in the country predicts otherwise.

Rising anger at the death toll in Iraq, recently revealed secret spying and torture camps, unmet needs of victims of Katrina, growing poverty and corruption scandals led two-thirds of those asked in a December poll to conclude the country is moving in the wrong direction. Other polls show 43 percent strongly disapprove and only 28 percent strongly support the president’s performance, as talk of impeachment surfaces.

GOP losing its grip

As incumbents look homeward toward re-election bids, Republican leadership in Congress is losing its iron grip. To their chagrin, in the last weeks of 2005 mass pressure blocked three signature bills in the Senate.

Lacking votes for permanent extension, the Patriot Act was continued for only one month. Drilling for oil in the Arctic was amended to the defense bill and defeated. And, despite Vice President Dick Cheney’s tie-breaking vote, which shamefully approved a budget including draconian cuts for children and families, a procedural amendment sent the bill back to the House to be voted on Jan. 31, after recess.

The Emergency Campaign for America’s Priorities, a coalition of 80 national labor, church and community groups, is targeting seven moderate Republicans whose votes could defeat the budget. Outrage over new tax cuts for the rich while lifesaving programs like Medicaid and heating assistance are cut is growing as the crises in health care and pension systems spin out of control.

“The Bush administration and House and Senate leaders have chosen to trample the poor to pamper the wealthy. Every citizen should demand of their Representative that this time they make the right choice for children and for America,” exclaimed Marian Wright Edelman, president of the Children’s Defense Fund.

Season of struggle

In a holiday season of struggle, hundreds of determined union members, peace and civil rights activists and local elected officials across the country took time away from family gatherings to visit and call their members of Congress demanding a firm withdrawal date from Iraq and opposing the appointment of Samuel Alito to the U.S. Supreme Court, two issues key to the 2006 elections.

As soon as the new year rang in, teams of “enraged and engaged emergency activists” converged on Washington, D.C., for Freedom Winter ’06 to save the future of women’s rights, civil rights and workers’ rights. The National Organization for Women is hosting the volunteers to coordinate home-state constituent calls and messages in opposition to Alito before the Senate returns on Jan. 18.

Grassroots pressure key

The tactics that stopped Bush’s number one priority to privatize Social Security have provided momentum for November’s elections. Grassroots organizing coordinated by Americans United to Protect Social Security, a coalition of 200 labor organizations and allies, proved more powerful than the repeated efforts of Bush and right-wing think tanks to convince young people that privatization was good for them.

The ability of Americans United to maintain a solid front in the face of all-out attempts by the Republican leadership to peel off the support of African American, Latino and women voters provided the basis for the Democratic caucus to hold solid. The coalition has announced they will conduct grassroots organizing in 25 states to take on an array of issues critical to the 2006 congressional elections.

Scare tactics divide and conquer

Right-wing think tanks that represent the interests of big capital continue to appeal to one section of the working class against another, a method which has enabled the Republican majority to maintain control of Congress. Bush and the National Republican Congressional Committee consider immigration such a key issue in 2006.

Divide and conquer scare tactics are being employed through the vicious anti-immigrant bill HR 4437, rushed through the House in December without opportunity for public debate. The bill would criminalize 12 million undocumented immigrants and anyone they associate with, revoke citizenship from their children born in this country, and further militarize the border, among many other punitive police-state measures.

Its supporters gained votes by playing on racism and fears of terrorism and job competition. Differences within business and among Republicans, plus a lack of unanimity among Democrats, complicate the terrain.

Immigrant, labor, civil rights and civil liberties organizations are mobilizing against HR 4377, which will come to the Senate in February or March.

The Senate Republican Policy Committee, chaired by Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), who is up for re-election, focuses exclusively on border enforcement.

Kyl’s Democratic opponent, Jim Pederson, supports the McCain-Kennedy bill, which also includes a path to citizenship. Kyl, who won his last election with 79 percent of the vote, has a campaign war chest over $4.2 million compared to $732,000 for Pederson. This race is one of several that could determine the majority in the Senate.

Iraq remains major issue

The biggest issue that will influence the 2006 elections is the Iraq war and occupation. Seventy-three city governments have passed resolutions calling for withdrawal from Iraq, organized by Cities for Progress. This pressure on Congress and the president from local elected officials reflects strong majority opposition to the war.

Unlike on Social Security, Democrats are not of one mind. The 70-member Out of Iraq Caucus, chaired by Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), has endorsed Pennsylvania Rep. John Murtha’s bill for withdrawal and redeployment, as has House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), despite divisions among House Democrats.

The alliance by Democratic Sen. Joe Lieberman (Conn.) with President Bush’s “stay the course” position backed up by the Republican Victory in Iraq Caucus has caused an uproar, especially in Connecticut, where Lieberman may face a challenger in the primary.

Many of the 56 House Democrats who voted for the war say if had known the facts they would have voted differently. Six have joined the Out of Iraq Caucus.

“I gave the administration the benefit of the doubt,” said Rep. Al Wynn (D-Md.). “I didn’t believe they would mislead us on issues of national importance. Clearly I was wrong.”

Sections of the peace movement, led by United for Peace and Justice and, have become actively engaged in lobbying and visiting members of Congress to call for town hall meetings and support for withdrawal.

Senate peace candidates call for exit strategy

Eight Democratic incumbents in the Senate and more in the House who have not called for a timetable to withdraw are facing primary or third-party challengers. These peace candidacies can open up the debate and increase pressure to bring the troops home if they place the responsibility for this war squarely on the shoulders of the Bush administration.

In Rhode Island, a Democratic primary will determine the opposition to Republican Sen. Lincoln Chafee. Secretary of State Matt Brown has called for a specific timeline for withdrawal in his campaign.

In Ohio, Rep. Sherrod Brown, one of the leading antiwar critics in the House, is running in a Democratic primary to challenge Republican Sen. Mike DeWine. DeWine angered labor by voting for CAFTA and against the Employee Free Choice Act, although he did not back privatization of Social Security.

In Montana John Tester, the leading Democrat contender against Republican Sen. Conrad Burns, calls for a plan to bring the troops home.

Progressive voices

The election of several more politically advanced candidates to the Senate would positively influence the policy debate within the Democratic Party and buttress the long-standing progressive role of the Congressional Black Caucus, Congressional Hispanic Caucus and Congressional Progressive Caucus.

Such possibilities exist. In Maryland, Rep. Ben Cardin and former Rep. Kweisi Mfume, both strong antiwar critics, are in contention for the seat vacated by Democratic Sen. Paul Sarbanes. In Vermont, Rep. Bernie Sanders will be the first socialist Independent in the Senate if he wins the seat vacated by Independent Jim Jeffords.

It would be a mistake, however, to judge every candidate on a rigid one-issue basis when the urgent goal is to defeat the Republican majority. The circumstances in each Senate and Congressional District race should be studied on their own merits.

By the numbers

In the House, Democrats need 15 seats for a majority. There are 14 open Republican seats, of which only two are in districts considered favorable for Democrats.

In the Senate, Democrats need six seats for a majority. The most vulnerable Republicans are in Rhode Island, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Tennessee, where Bill Frist is stepping down, as well as Montana, Arizona and Missouri. Democratic seats considered vulnerable are in Minnesota and Washington state.

The AFL-CIO has launched a “Who’s On Our Side” campaign, targeting members of Congress in 10 pivotal states: Minnesota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida, Wisconsin, Colorado, Iowa, Missouri, Maryland, Montana. The federation has issued report cards based on 13 votes on jobs and wages, retirement security, health care, tax fairness and education.

“Working families — with the facts in hand — have the power to take back the country and make sure we are represented by leaders who are fighting for our best interests, not the special interests, every day,” said Richard Trumka, secretary-treasurer of the labor federation.

Also bringing new resources into the 2006 elections are the thousands of new union members organized this year, most notably the 4,700 janitors in Houston and the 1,000 nurses in Minnesota.

What a shift would look like

The significance of ending right-wing Republican majority control of Congress is enormous. If progressive Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) becomes chair of the Judiciary Committee, hearings could determine the legality of how the country was brought into war, and the legality of the president’s authorization of National Security Agency unchecked secret domestic spying. Conyers and eight co-sponsors have introduced HR 635 to investigate the possibility of impeachment.

Official hearings which have been suppressed could guarantee enforcement of the Voting Rights Act. The labor and people’s movement would be positioned to get advanced legislation like the Employee Free Choice Act, the Medicare for All Act, and measures strengthening Social Security and Medicare out of committee and onto the legislative calendar.

2005 set the stage

The elections of 2005 set the pace for 2006. In Virginia and New Jersey, formerly Republican suburbs shifted Democratic. In California, the biggest ever mobilization by labor along with the Mexican American and African American people, women and youth delivered a resounding defeat to Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s agenda. This expression of the broad all-people’s front, which mobilized to preserve union rights and funding for human needs, shows the power of grassroots education and organization to get out the vote.

Victory through unity and struggle

The possibility to take back the House and Senate lies not just in the election campaigns, but in the fights around Alito, the war on Iraq, domestic spying, corruption scandals and the budget, which are building up the momentum that can shatter the Bush presidency. The possibility to change Congress also lies in the ability to see past divisive wedge issues which have been the hallmark of the right wing and to build unity based on the understanding that an injury to one is an injury to all.

Joelle Fishman ( chairs the Political Action Commission of the Communist Party USA.