WASHINGTON – President Bush faces fateful new choices.

With his party’s loss of the House, experts say Bush must fundamentally alter the way he approaches Congress for any hope of salvaging his own “aggressive” agenda for the remaining two years of his presidency.

And with criticism of his conduct of the war in Iraq mounting even within his own party, Bush and his embattled secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld, are likely to confront searing congressional hearings led by Democrats intent on exerting new oversight and challenging the course of the war.

This much is clear: The rules of the game are changing.

“It’s a real time for choice by President Bush,” said Norman Ornstein, resident scholar at Washington-based American Enterprise Institute. “It really becomes a question of whether he is really going to become “a uniter, not a divider,’ in a way that has not occurred for the majority of his presidency. … Or draw a line in the dust.”

The White House, intent on fulfilling a domestic agenda that includes perpetuation of tax cuts won during Bush’s first term, is likely to seek reconciliation after hard-fought elections – with Bush planning to speak out Wednesday at a news conference. In a campaign-closing rally, Bush promised: “For the next 2 1/2 years, I’m going to sprint as hard as I can.”

The president could stumble for two years, experts say, if he does not demonstrate more willingness to negotiate.

The administration already has revealed a determination to prosecute the war as it is, with Vice President Dick Cheney insisting the elections would have little impact: “The president’s made clear what his objective is: It’s victory in Iraq, and it’s full speed ahead.”

Any course change – including the removal of a defense secretary who has faced calls for resignation from retired generals and the editorial page of the Army Times – could take some time.

“All those people heading to the polls hoping to change the policy in Iraq are going to wake up Wednesday and find out that won’t happen,” said Stephen Hess, a Brookings Institution senior scholar.

As the focus of politics in Washington rapidly shifts to the next presidential election, leaders within Bush’s party could help chart a new war strategy as they seek to bolster the GOP’s footing for 2008.

“Staying the course” in Iraq would likely only intensify the scrutiny of House committees whose new Democratic leaders have subpoena power to pursue questions they have increasingly raised in the past year.

It’s unlikely that any hearings would escalate to the level of impeachment that GOP leaders had warned of with a Democratic takeover, Democratic leaders say, but the White House, Rumsfeld and others could face unrelenting interrogation.

On the war front and home front, Bush’s ability to make any headway during the rest of his term could depend on a willingness to work with Democrats whom he has spent years marginalizing. Some say Bush could find quick common ground on immigration reform with a new Democratic House majority.

Not since his first year, when he secured his “No Child Left Behind” educational reforms with Democratic help, has Bush demonstrated the full bipartisan spirit that he pledged campaigning in 2000 – running as “a uniter, not a divider.”

His final two years could depend on a revival of that spirit.

“When Bush started out, the idea was, “I am going to strike a balance here,”‘ said Ornstein, suggesting Bush would have to regain that balance for any future successes. “If he doesn’t move in that direction, it’s going to be a long and difficult two years.”

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