November 5, 2008 / 5:20 AM / in 9 years

Democrats expand majorities in Congress

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Democrats expanded their majorities in both chambers of the U.S. Congress in Tuesday’s election to position themselves to quickly act on much of U.S. President-elect Barack Obama’s ambitious agenda.

But Democrats fell at least a few seats short of obtaining for the first time in three decades the 60 needed in the 100-member Senate to clear Republican procedural hurdles.

Still, Democrats expressed hope that in wake of the election they will be able to win over a few moderate Republicans to pass major measures, including ones to begin to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq and end the worst economic crisis since The Great Depression.

“They (Republicans) are going to have to be more cooperative. They have to realize their old way of just blocking everything just doesn’t work for them,” a Democratic leadership aide said.

“Heck, their party got its butt kicked tonight and (Senate Republican Leader Mitch) McConnell barely won another term,” the aide said.

By picking up five seats with several other Senate contests yet to be decided, Democrats had increased their majority to 56, and figured that they would get at least a few more.

“There is no way in hell of getting 60,” one aide said. races. “But I think we gain at least six seats, maybe seven,” to reach 57 or 58.

Overall 35 Senate seats were up for election, 23 held by Republicans, the others by Democrats. Many of the races involving seats held by Republicans were seen as competitive.

All 435 House seats were up for election. Democrats now control the chamber, 235-199 with one vacancy. MSNBC projected that Democrats would increase their majority to 261-174.

But regardless of how many seats Democrats pick up, record federal deficits and the poor state of the economy will limit what they can do.

Democrats would likely have to limit or postpone any big new spending programs, such as ones to expand health care, upgrade education and advance renewable energy technology.

Riding an anti-Republican wave generated largely by the unpopularity of President George W. Bush, and a crush of enthusiasm created by the charismatic Obama, congressional Democrats had one of their best election in more than a decade.

In fact, it was the first time since 1992 that Democrats won both chambers of Congress as well as the White House when Bill Clinton led their ticket.

Democrats won the Senate two years ago, but Republicans routinely blocked legislation on matters from withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq and stimulating the economy to health care and energy.

Two former Democratic governors, Mark Warner of Virginia and Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, won seats held by Republicans, retiring Sen. John Warner and Sen. John Sununu, respectively.

In addition, Republican Sen. Elizabeth Dole of North Carolina, wife of 1996 Republican presidential nominee Bob Dole, was unseated by Democratic state senator Kay Hagan.

Democratic U.S. Rep. Tom Udall won the seat being vacated by retiring Republican Sen. Pete Domenici of New Mexico and his cousin, Democratic Mark Udall of Colorado, won the seat being vacated by Republican Wayne Allard.

Along with McConnell, Sens. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia and Roger Wicker of Mississippi fended off fierce challenges and won.

“Winston Churchill once said that the most exhilarating feeling in life is to be shot at -- and missed,” McConnell declared after his victory over Democrat Bruce Lunsford.

Among the senators who easily won re-election was Democratic Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware. But he will have to give up his seat since with the Obama victory, Biden will become the new vice president.

The grim election night for Republicans was symbolized in part by the fact that Rep. Chris Shays of Connecticut, the final Republican in the largely liberal and moderate Northeast United States, was among those defeated.

With Republicans losing dozens of seats to Democrats in two consecutive elections, a shake-up of party leadership on Capitol Hill seems certain.

Rep. Adam Putnam of Florida, the House’s third ranking Republican, said he will not seek re-election to a leadership post in the new Congress that convenes in January.

“I believe it is time to step off the leadership ladder,” the 34-year-old Floridian wrote Republican colleagues in an open letter.

Editing by David Wiessler

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