Iraq, Elections Topped Political News of 2006

Democrats took control of Congress for the first time in 12 years in the same year the news was dominated by the war in Iraq, immigration reform, a White House shake-up and an accidental shooting involving the vice president.

Exit polls from the midterm congressional election show that voters punished Republicans for the failures in the Iraq war, sending home incumbents and replacing them in the nation's capital with Democrats who campaigned on the need for a change of course in Iraq.

"Iraq was an important issue in the elections. It dominated the debates going into the fall," said Brian Darling, a fellow at the Heritage Foundation. "It's the one issue ... that overrode everything else in 2006."

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The day after Democrats regained their House majority and the Senate teetered on a turnover, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld announced his resignation. The resulting confirmation of Robert Gates to replace Rumsfeld along with an expected speech in January by President Bush outlining his future strategy suggests Iraq is likely to remain at the top of the headlines in 2007.

Darling predicted that Bush would maintain his resolute position on Iraq and push hard to defeat insurgents there. But if things don't get better in Iraq, it will continue to hurt Republicans in the 2008 election.

"If people are still dissatisfied in 2008 about progress in the war in Iraq, I think you'll see 2006 all over again. Other issues won't matter," Darling said.

Scandals also caused people to take a closer look at their elected officials, said Curtis Gans, director of the Center for the Study of the American Electorate at American University.

"Some people sensed that Republicans had been too long at the fair," he said.

Below are's choice for the top politics stories of the year:

Feb. 1: Samuel Alito Becomes Supreme Court Justice

Alito was sworn in as the United States' 110th justice after the Senate voted 58-42 in favor of his confirmation. Alito replaced retiring Associate Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, the first woman to hold a seat on the nation's highest bench.

President Bush’s pick was the most partisan Supreme Court nomination since Justice Clarence Thomas' confirmation in 1991.

Feb. 11: Cheney Accidentally Shoots Fellow Hunter

Vice President Dick Cheney caused a stir when he accidentally shot and injured a buddy while on a hunting trip in Texas.

“I’m the guy who pulled the trigger and shot my friend. And I say that is something I’ll never forget,” Cheney told FOX News’ Brit Hume in an exclusive interview after the incident.

Cheney was hunting quail with attorney Harry Whittington, 78, when he misfired and sprayed his friend in the face and chest with the birdshot from a 28-gauge shotgun at a ranch owned by a strong Republican supporter, Katharine Armstrong.

Whittington suffered a mild, "asymptomatic" heart attack caused by a shotgun pellet that migrated to his heart. He recovered quickly and was released from the hospital within the week.

Feb. 12: Dubai Ports World Deal Stirs Debate on Port Security

Bush’s initial push for a Dubai-owned company to take over U.S. port operations at six locations ruffled the feathers of Congress and millions of Americans who said it would be suicidal to allow a foreign-run company based in the United Arab Emirates run cargo inspections and other harbor operations in the United States. Republicans and Democrats pushed back against the plan, approved by the Committee on Foreign Investments in the U.S., which is led by the treasury secretary and includes members from the Departments of State, Defense, Commerce and Justice.

The division represented one of the few splits between the White House and the GOP-led Congress. Facing opposition, DP World later sold its operations to AIG Global Investment Group.

March: White House Shake-Up Begins

Several big players went packing from the White House following a series of resignations meant to breathe fresh life into Oval Office thinking. Bush Chief of Staff Andy Card was first to leave his post. Card, Bush’s sole chief of staff for more than five years, was replaced by White House budget director Joshua Bolten. Former U.S. Trade Representative Rob Portman replaced Bolten at the Office of Management and Budget.

White House press secretary Scott McClellan also stepped down from the podium and was replaced by FOX News Talks radio host Tony Snow. White House adviser Karl Rove gave up oversight of policy development to shift towards a focus on elections, but stayed with the president.

In May, CIA Chief Porter Goss resigned as the spy agency was trying to recover from intelligence failures leading up to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and the Iraq war. The Senate confirmed Air Force Gen. Michael Hayden to take over the spot. Hayden became the first active-duty or retired military officer to be director of the civilian intelligence agency in 25 years.

Elsewhere in the administration, Interior Secretary Gale Norton also resigned and was replaced by former Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne.

April 4: Tom DeLay Resigns From Congress

Former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, an 11-term Republican congressman from Texas, resigned from Congress in June amid a campaign finance investigation. DeLay denies involvement in allegedly illegal use of corporate funds for the Texas House during 2002 campaigns. Democrat Rep. Nick Lampson won DeLay's seat in a runoff election that pitted him against write-in candidate Shelley Sekula-Gibbs.

May 1: Millions Take to Streets for Immigration Reform

An estimated 1 million illegal immigrants and their supporters spend May Day marching in several cities across the United States for expanded rights for the estimated 11 million-plus illegals living in the country. Meanwhile, Congress and the White House sparred for months over the appropriate course of action to deal with the growing numbers of illegal immigrants crossing the U.S. borders each day.

Bush signed a bill into law in October to build a border fence along 700 miles between the United States and Mexico at California, Texas and Arizona. The Secure Fence Act of 2006 gives the secretary of Homeland Security 18 months to act. Bush supports a guest worker program to give permits to foreigners in low-paying jobs with the intention that they will go home after a temporary stay in the United States.

Sept. 29: Sex Scandal Forces Foley's Resignation From Congress

Foley entered an alcohol rehabilitation facility shortly after he resigned from Congress following news that he had inappropriate online communications with a male teen former congressional page. Investigations by Florida authorities and federal officials are under way to determine if Foley broke any laws in connection to the communications. Foley's lawyers say the former congressman never had inappropriate sexual contact with a minor.

The House Ethics Committee released a report in December that found no lawmakers broke House rules but Republican leaders could have done a better job in investigating allegations against Foley.

Oct. 30: Sen. John Kerry Botches Joke

The Massachusetts Democrat ignited a controversy over his comments made at a campaign appearance in California in which he told Pasadena City College students that if "you study hard, you do your homework and you make an effort to be smart, you can do well.

"And if you don't, you get stuck in Iraq," he said.

Kerry was defiant in the face for Republican calls for an apology, but eventually said his comments were a "poorly stated joke" aimed at the president and not U.S. troops deployed overseas. Nonetheless, the publicity forced Kerry to go home and stop campaigning for Democrats a week before the election.

Nov. 8: Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld Resigns

Rumsfeld stepped down from his post of six years the day after the Nov. 7 election gave Democrats the congressional majority. Bush made the formal announcement, saying Rumsfeld replacement Robert Gates would provide a "fresh perspective and new ideas on how America can achieve our goals in Iraq."

The Senate confirmed Gates in December and he began studying up on the Iraq challenge immediately, making a surprise trip to the nation to meet with top U.S. commanders and troops ahead of a briefing with Bush before Christmas.

Nov. 9: Democrats Win Control of Congress

Democrats won control of both chambers of Congress for the first time in 12 years. It took three days for the Senate majority to be determined with Democrats gaining a one-seat margin after Republican Sen. George Allen of Virginia conceded to party-switching Democrat Jim Webb, the former Navy secretary to Ronald Reagan.

The election victory means California Rep. Nancy Pelosi will take the reins in the 110th Congress as the first female speaker of the House. On the flip side, Speaker Dennis Hastert not only lost his top post in Congress, he stepped down from the House Republican leadership altogether.

Dec. 6: Iraq Study Group Releases Report

The Iraq Study Group spent nine months assessing the situation in Iraq and issued 79 recommendations for a change of course there.

The report recommended three critical suggestions — changing the primary mission of U.S. forces in Iraq, prompt action by the Iraqi government to hit milestones on reconciliation and new and enhanced political and diplomatic efforts in Iraq and the region.

Not all the ISG's suggestions went over well, with lawmakers arguing over whether to engage Iran and Syria, two state sponsors of terrorism that are both reportedly contributing to the unstable situation in Iraq.

Bush said he would seriously consider the report and announce a new strategy for Iraq in January, but reports surfaced quickly that he is considering a troop build-up, one of the few suggestions not made by the ISG.

Honorable Mentions in 2006

January: President Bush Campaigns in Defense of NSA Wiretap Program

First revealed in December 2005 in a New York Times report, the National Security Agency continued its program of listening in without warrants on people in the United States holding phone conversations with suspected terrorists abroad.

The administration argued it was a "vital tool" in the War on Terror and the president has the constitutional authority to let intelligence officials eavesdrop on such international phone calls. Democrats argued Congress did not authorize the NSA program when it passed that 2001 resolution governing the use of military force in the War on Terror.

By the end of the year, nothing in the program had changed and its legal grounds were still up for debate, but Democrats were weighing options for limiting the program when they gain control of Congress in 2007.

March 29: Cynthia McKinney punches a Capitol Hill police officer

Rep. McKinney, D-Ga., accused a Capitol police officer of "inappropriate touching" when he tried to stop her from bypassing a security checkpoint. McKinney, who was not wearing her congressional pin and had recently changed her hairstyle from tight braids to flowing loose curls, refused to stop at his request and allegedly struck the officer who later said he didn't recognize her when he asked her to pass through the magnetometer.

McKinney lost her primary re-election bid in August against challenger Hank Johnson.

May 16: Al Gore Officially Becomes Movie Star

The former vice president and 2000 Democratic presidential candidate earned kudos for the documentary film based on his power point presentation about how global warming will destroy coasts, ruin economies and force huge changes in human migration patterns. "An Inconvenient Truth" became one of the top-earning box office documentaries, though some climatologists continue to call it junk science.

Gore ended up winning awards, training "environmental messengers" and being a featured guest on "Oprah" to discuss the dangers of greenhouse gases. By the end of the year, he has retracted an earlier comment that he would not consider a run for president in 2008.

Dec. 4: John Bolton Resigns from U.N. Post

The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations officially abandoned his quest to remain at the world body, sending formal notice to the White House that he will leave when his temporary appointment expires.

Bush had been searching for some way to keep Bolton in the post of chief U.S. diplomat, but administration officials had all but given up on getting any sort of straight-up confirmation for Bolton, who was unable to win support from Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and at least one Republican, Sen. Lincoln Chafee, who lost in the midterm election Nov. 7.

Dec. 9: Rep. William Jefferson Keeps Seat Amid Bribery Investigation

Jefferson held on to his congressional seat in a December runoff election after scandal plagued his campaign. Earlier in the year, federal officials had searched Jefferson’s homes in New Orleans and Washington, D.C., and spent 18 hours in his congressional office. Investigators said they found $90,000 in cash in Jefferson’s Louisiana home freezer, money which they say he had been videotaped picking up from an executive turned informant. Jefferson has not been charged and has denied wrongdoing. The congressional office search led to loud protests by members of Congress on both sides of the aisle.

Dec. 13: South Dakota Sen. Johnson Suffers Stroke-Like Symptoms

Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson suffered stroke-like symptoms that led to emergency brain surgery. Johnson was admitted to the hospital after wrapping up a conference call with reporters in which he became disoriented and stuttered a response to a question. He appeared to recover, asking for any additional questions and then signed off.

Johnson's fate was unknown for a few days, with some speculating that a Republican could be tapped to replace him and change the balance of the Senate. Johnson, however, appears to be recovering slowly and the early prognosis suggests it is unlikely he will need to abandon his seat.