The anti-GOP wave that upended Congress rewarded Democrats with new opportunities to help set the national agenda and burdened them with the task of delivering on voters expectations.
Between their promise to increase the minimum wage and their vow to seek a new direction in Iraq lies the difference over what is achievable and what might fall beyond their reach.
"Simply having the title of majority is not enough," said Sen. Richard Durbin of Illinois, the second-ranking Democratic leader in the Senate. "It's a long litany of challenges before us."
A congress of accomplishment
Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, who likely will become the new Senate majority leader next year, said: "We want to be a part of a Congress that accomplishes something."
Reid and Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the would-be speaker of the House, savored their victories on Wednesday but struck conciliatory tones, promising to work in a bipartisan way with congressional Republicans and the president.
"This is not a juggernaut just slicing through town," Reid said.
Democrats won the slimmest 51-49 majority in the Senate Wednesday evening with the victory of Democrat Jim Webb over Republican Sen. George Allen in a hard-fought Senate race in Virginia. With some races too close to call, Democrats held 229 seats in the House, 11 more than a bare majority. They appeared to be in line to win three more.
More than the Iraq factor
For Democrats, winning control of both chambers of Congress raises the stakes.
Besides hiking the minimum wage, they want to act quickly on legislation to enact recommendations of the 9/11 Commission, to reduce dependence on foreign oil, to expand stem cell research and to reduce the price of drugs offered through Medicare. All those pose potential legislative challenges, but none more than the Democrats' pledge to seek a new direction in the war in Iraq.
Surveys of voters conducted on Election Day showed that almost three out of five voters disapproved of the war and were more inclined to vote for the Democratic candidate. Only a third of voters said the war had improved the long-term security of the United States.
Still, the strategic course of the war is set by the president. Congress has little leverage to force the president to change course. Bush sent Congress a signal on Wednesday when he announced he would replace Donald H. Rumsfeld as secretary of state. The change, Bush said, would provide a "fresh perspective" on the war.
Recognizing Congress's limitation, Pelosi said that when it comes to Iraq, "it's not about the Democrats in Congress forcing the president's hand."
The first test on the war for Democrats could come next year when Bush sends Congress a spending bill to pay for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Democrats have said they will not hold war appropriations hostage in exchange for policy changes. Instead, they are hoping Bush will heed the results of the election and the upcoming recommendations of a bipartisan Iraq study group led by former Secretary of State James Baker.
The president's veto power
"The president is the president of the United States," she said. "I hope that he will listen to the voices of the people and, again, putting aside partisanship and looking to a partnership to end this war."
Congressional Democrats will have to work with Bush on other fronts, too. The president wields a powerful veto pen that Democrats would be unable to override on their own. And in the Senate, a slim 51-49 Democratic majority would be hamstrung by the filibuster _ a favorite parliamentary weapon of the minority that permits 41 senators to block legislation.
"The minority, as long as it has more than 41 people together, can have a great deal of impact on whether something passes at all, or, if it passes, what form it takes," said Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, in line to become the new Senate Republican leader.
Some Republicans cautioned against an obstructionist approach.
"If we do that, shame on us," said Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio. "If the Democrats do what I would do if I were them and reach out with a list of things to do, and if we're depicted as standing on the outside trying to prevent that from happening, it would be terrible for the country. And it's stupid politics."
Democrats already were offering to cooperate when the House and Senate reconvene under Republican control next week for a postelection session. The agenda includes unfinished business on legislation ranging from offshore drilling to a nuclear agreement with India to tax incentives for the production of alternative energy.
Also unfinished, however, are 10 spending bills needed to keep the government operating. Officials said it was possible lawmakers would simply leave final action on those bills to the new Congress.
That would saddle Democrats with the task of tidying up the past when they would rather be looking to the future.