Democrats solidify hold on Congress

Democrats rolled up sizable election gains in both the House and Senate on Tuesday, which should give a boost to President-elect Barack Obama. In winning new seats in both chambers, the party added to the significant increases that it scored in 2006, when it regained control of Congress.

The result will be a comfortable majority in each chamber starting next January, though not as big as many Democrats and some outside observers had predicted. And the increases probably will not be large enough for the Democratic majority to steamroll over some of the difficult legislative challenges it will face in the 111th Congress.

As of this posting, Democrats had scored a net gain of 16 seats in the House and five in the Senate. But many contests remained unresolved, especially in the West, and several recounts appeared likely in the House.

With the national spotlight focused on Obama's victory speech, congressional Democratic leaders kept a low profile this year compared to their celebration two years ago.

In the Senate, Democrats ousted first-term Republicans Elizabeth Dole of North Carolina and John Sununu of New Hampshire. And they took seats vacated by three veteran Republicans: Wayne Allard of Colorado, Pete Domenici of New Mexico and John Warner of Virginia.

The fate of four Republican senators remained up for grabs at night's end: Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, Norm Coleman of Minnesota, Gordon Smith of Oregon and Ted Stevens of Alaska. According to Associated Press reports early Wednesday morning, Chambliss and Stevens led their opponents, while the races in Minnesota and Oregon were still too close to call.

In the House, Democrats ousted 11 Republican incumbents and took nine more GOP open seats. But unlike in 2006, when Democrats lost no seats in either chamber, Republicans took four Democratic-held seats. That left a net Democratic gain of at least 16 seats, with the strong likelihood of additional pick-ups.

House Republicans fared especially badly in the Northeast, where veteran Christopher Shays' loss in Connecticut cost the party its last representative in New England's 22 seats. The GOP also lost three seats in New York and one each in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

GOP setbacks weren't confined to the Northeast, either, with the loss of four seats in the Midwest (two in Ohio and one each in Illinois and Michigan), five in the South (two incumbents in the Orlando area of Florida, another incumbent in North Carolina and open seats in Alabama and Virginia), plus at least five seats in the West (two in New Mexico, and one each in Arizona, Colorado and Nevada).

Of those losses, four were congressional freshmen: Nancy Boyda of Kansas, Nick Lampson of Texas, Tim Mahoney of Florida, plus Don Cazayoux of Louisiana, who won a special election for a vacant seat this spring. All four had taken longtime Republican-held seats only to hand them back this election -- a pattern that House Republicans hope to continue in 2010.

Speaking to reporters on an early-morning conference call, National Republican Congressional Committee chairman Tom Cole, R-Okla., predicted "it will be a much better environment" for Republicans in the next campaign, with Democrats in complete control and pushing what he expects will be a liberal agenda.

Citing a litany of factors that were stacked against Republicans in this election -- including an unpopular president, a weak economy, war and the financial crisis, plus the political challenges of defending 30 open House seats and being vastly outspent by Democrats -- Cole said of the night's results, "I take some satisfaction, though I prefer to win." He cited recent predictions that Democrats might score at least a 30-seat House gain and said he expected that the final House Democrat gain will be closer to 20.

Democratic congressional leaders, for their part, have been struggling to manage expectations throughout this cycle, and especially during the final weeks of the campaign. They have repeatedly cited the historical trend that a "wave" election -- such as 2006, when they gained 30 seats in the House and six in the Senate -- is usually followed by minimal gains or even losses in the next cycle. That was the case, for example, following big Democratic gains in 1964 and 1974, and Republican gains in 1980 and 1994.

With the national spotlight focused on Obama's victory speech in Chicago, congressional Democratic leaders kept a low profile this year compared to their celebration two years ago. And they showed a greater appreciation of the challenges that lie ahead now that they are about to gain full responsibility for governance. At a Capitol Hill reception sponsored by congressional Democrats, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., emphasized the need for bipartisan civility. "We must take a deliberate, steady course for America," Pelosi told the mostly young crowd.

"The American people have given all of us -- Democrats, Republicans and independents -- a simple mandate: to work together find big solutions to the big challenges facing our country," Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean said in a statement. "With the help of strong Democratic majorities in Congress, President Barack Obama is going to set this nation on a course to provide the change we need."

Congressional leaders from both parties are scheduled to hold several press conferences later on Wednesday.

And Republicans likely will launch several leadership contests for the 111th Congress, which could be held at party organizing sessions as soon as two weeks from now. A widely anticipated shake-up in House GOP ranks gained new fuel when House Republican Conference Chairman Adam Putnam, R-Fla., released a letter late Tuesday night announcing that he would not seek another term. "I believe it is time to step off the leadership ladder and return my focus to crafting public policy solutions for America's generational challenges -- the very reason I ran for Congress in the first place," Putnam wrote.

His move likely will set off a scramble for the conference chairmanship. Possible contenders include Jeb Hensarling of Texas, Pete Hoekstra of Michigan, Jack Kingston of Georgia, Cathy McMorris-Rodgers of Washington and Mike Pence of Indiana, according to a senior House GOP aide. In addition, House Chief Deputy Whip Eric Cantor of Virginia is widely expected to seek a move up the GOP's leadership ladder.

In the Senate, a reshuffling is expected on the lower rungs. With the narrow re-election victory of Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in Kentucky, he and Minority Whip Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., likely will remain in the top two Senate GOP slots.

In coming days, congressional Democrats likely will clarify their plans for a lame-duck session. Reid has announced plans for the Senate to return on Nov. 17, while Pelosi has not been definitive. Senior Democratic aides have said that party leaders would like to pass additional economic-stimulus legislation before year's end, but they are unlikely to move without positive signals from President Bush.

Pressure is also mounting for action to bail out the beleaguered automobile industry. Bush and congressional Republican leaders, for their part, are eager to win final approval of a free-trade deal with Colombia. And they hope that Obama and the Democrats might welcome the opportunity to remove some of these issues from the schedule for what looms as a hectic first few months next year.

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