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RUMSFELD OUT AS DEMOCRATS CLOSE IN ON SENATE MAJORITY

Times Staff Writer

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.

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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.

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“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.”

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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.

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“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.

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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.

Coming after months of military setbacks, the election demonstrated that both Democrats and independents were weary of making sacrifices while stability in Iraq remains elusive. More Republicans now are likely to join the effort to press Bush to find another approach, hoping they will not have to face the 2008 election with 140,000 troops still in Iraq, strategists in both parties say.

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Meanwhile, in the next few months, a congressionally appointed study panel headed by former Secretary of State James A. Baker III and former Rep. Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.) is expected to report its suggestions for a new direction on Iraq policy.

In his comments, Bush left himself room to maneuver in the face of these pressures. While insisting he would accept nothing less than victory in Iraq, he said he was eager to talk to the new Democratic leadership, and the study group, about how to achieve that goal.

Some top Democrats have insisted they will not try to push through a cutoff of war funds, as lawmakers did in 1973 to end U.S. participation in Vietnam. But Democrats are likely to wrangle with the White House on how money will be spent on the war.

The first shot in that battle may be over an expected fiscal 2007 supplemental spending request for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. The services are preparing to ask for a record $160 billion for that purpose, defense analysts say.

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In other policy areas, Bush suggested that compromise might be possible with a Democratic-controlled Congress, despite the bitter rhetoric of the campaign.

“I believe we can find some common ground with the Democrats” on a broad rewrite of immigration laws, he said. Bush’s vision of the overhaul is supported by more Democrats than Republicans, because many conservatives oppose his plan to offer a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants already in the U.S.

In another olive branch, Bush suggested he might be willing to back an increase in the federal minimum wage, an idea that was a key plank in Democrats’ 2006 campaign platform.

Julian Zelizer, a congressional historian at Boston University, said Bush might be more willing to work with Democrats in the final two years of his presidency. “He might feel more compelled to build his legislative record fast so he is not remembered just for a failed war in Iraq and losing Congress to the Democrats,” Zelizer said.

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But amid the talk in Washington of renewed bipartisanship, there were already signs of the distrust and bickering that had plagued Congress throughout Bush’s tenure.

“Contrary to public statements [by Pelosi] that we’re entering a time of ‘partnership, not partisanship,’ let’s be honest,” said Rep. Patrick T. McHenry (R-N.C.). “Pelosi’s House will be marked by two years of partisan warfare, complete with infighting, intrigue, investigation, incompetence and inaction,”

Recriminations were flying as Republicans debated why and how they lost so badly. Many Republicans said the election returns did not represent a landslide mandate for Democrats or for a liberal agenda. They contended that many of the defeated Republicans had been injured by scandal, rather than rejected for their conservative views.

But many conservative activists said the GOP suffered at the polls because it had lost its commitment to controlling spending and limiting government.

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“We did not just lose our majority, we lost our way,” said Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.), leader of a large faction of House conservatives.

The finger-pointing is likely to intensify in the power struggle set off by Hastert’s decision to step down as the longest-serving Republican speaker. Pence is challenging Rep. John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), the current majority leader, for the post of minority leader, which will be the No. 1 post for House Republicans.

Another possible contender for minority leader is House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Joe L. Barton (R-Texas).

Democrats’ post-victory unity will be tested by leadership struggles as well. Pelosi is expected to become speaker without contest, but the No. 2 leadership position will be sought by Rep. Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, a favorite of party moderates, and Rep. John Murtha of Pennsylvania, who has thrilled liberals with his opposition to the Iraq war.

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House Democratic Caucus Chairman James E. Clyburn of South Carolina launched a campaign for majority whip, the No. 3 slot. But Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.), chief engineer of Tuesday’s Democratic victory, is said to be considering running for the post too.

That could put Pelosi in a difficult spot: She might want to reward Emanuel, but she is under pressure from black lawmakers to elevate Clyburn, a former head of the Congressional Black Caucus.

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janet.hook@latimes.com

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Times staff writers James Gerstenzang and Paul Richter contributed to this report


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