Democrats expand Senate grip but fail to win House

Democrats held on to a narrow majority in the Senate, ensuring a divided Congress with Republicans holding on to the House.

 

 

WASHINGTON -- A newly re-elected President Barack Obama will once again deal with a divided Congress as Democrats strengthened their control of the U.S. Senate but did not make much of a dent in the Republicans' solid majority in the House of Representatives.

The results of Tuesday's election mean that Obama, despite being re-elected to a second term, will face the same Republican pushback that has stymied efforts to enact major pieces of legislation.

Democrats had been seen as vulnerable to losing control of the Senate, since they had more seats to defend and had more senators retiring, but they managed to increase their advantage in the chamber by two, to 55-47, counting two independents expected to align with them. Among the winners for the Democrats was the first openly gay U.S. senator.

Republican candidates in Missouri and Indiana — both states won by Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney — were defeated after making damaging comments about rape and abortion. An incumbent Republican fell in liberal Massachusetts. Republicans also lost a seat in Maine, where an independent who is expected to vote with the Democrats won.

Only a dozen or so Senate races out of the 33 on the ballot were seen as competitive, and almost all of them — in North Dakota, Montana, Wisconsin, Virginia, Connecticut, Missouri, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Mexico and Florida — went the Democrats' way. Republicans picked up a Democratic-held seat in Nebraska and fended off strong challengers in Nevada and Arizona.

More than $2 billion was spent on the nasty fight for Congress. All 435 House seats were on the ballot, and Republicans retained control there, though Democrats made a few gains. With most races decided, the new House looked like it would resemble the current one, which Republicans control by 240-190, with five vacancies.

While Republican Rep. Paul Ryan lost the vice presidency, he did win another term to his Wisconsin House seat.

House Speaker John Boehner, who gets to keep his job, offered to work with any willing partner, Republican or Democrat, to get things done. "The American people want solutions — and tonight, they've responded by renewing our majority," he told a gathering of Republicans.

But Boehner also said that by keeping Republicans in control of the House, voters made clear there is no mandate for raising taxes. Obama has proposed imposing higher taxes on households earning over $250,000 a year.

Control of the Senate at the very least gives Democrats a firewall against Republican attempts to overturn Obama's signature legislative achievement, his health care reform law, before it is fully implemented in 2014. Republicans had promised to repeal it.

The first post-election test of wills could start next week, when Congress returns from its election recess to deal with unfinished business — including a looming "fiscal cliff" of $400 billion in higher taxes and $100 billion in automatic cuts in military and domestic spending to take effect in January if Congress doesn't head them off. Economists warn that the combination could plunge the nation back into a recession.

Newly elected Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a Democrat who won a marquee race against incumbent Scott Brown, said Wednesday she believes there is a "lot of room for compromise" on the impending fiscal crisis.

Warren, a favorite among liberals as a leading consumer advocate, told NBC's "Today" that Congress can find a middle ground to bring down the deficit by cutting spending while raising revenues.

Democrats began the year in a precarious position, defending 23 Senate seats and losing several retiring veterans in Republican-leaning states, all while voter discontent lingered over the sluggish economy and Obama's health care law. But the Democrats fielded some strong candidates, and Republican prospects were undermined by some candidates who proved to be too conservative and by the surprise retirement of Sen. Olympia Snowe in Maine.

Snowe, a moderate, voiced her frustration with the gridlocked Congress when she announced her retirement earlier this year. Independent Angus King, a former governor, won a three-way race to replace her.

King has vowed to be a bridge between the parties and has not said whether he would caucus with the Democrats or Republicans. However, he was expected to side with the Democrats after Republican groups spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on ads attacking him.

Another new moderate will be in Indiana, where Democratic congressman Joe Donnelly won. Donnelly replaces moderate veteran senator Dick Lugar, who had been expected to easily win re-election before losing a Republican primary to state treasurer Richard Mourdock, a darling of the anti-tax, limited government tea party movement. Mourdock came under withering criticism after saying in a debate that when pregnancy results from rape, it is "something God intended."

In Missouri, Sen. Claire McCaskill had been considered the most vulnerable Democratic incumbent, but she defeated another tea party-backed candidate, congressman Todd Akin, who won the Republican primary. Akin was disowned by Republican leaders, including Romney, after he remarked in August that women's bodies have ways of avoiding pregnancy in cases of what he called "legitimate rape."

Two senators who rode a Democratic wave when the party captured the Senate in 2006 were elected to second terms: Sherrod Brown in Ohio and Bob Casey in Pennsylvania. In Virginia, Tim Kaine, a former governor and Democratic national party chairman, won a costly, close race against former Republican senator and governor George Allen after Democratic Sen. Jim Webb decided not to seek re-election.

In another tight race in Wisconsin, Democratic congresswoman Tammy Baldwin defeated former Gov. Tommy Thompson and will become the first openly gay U.S. senator.

In Connecticut, Democratic congressman Chris Murphy won the seat being vacated by retiring independent Joe Lieberman, the Democratic vice presidential candidate in 2000. Republicans had once hoped that the race would be won by Linda McMahon, the former head of World Wrestling Entertainment who spent more than $42 million of her own fortune in the race.

Some favorites of the tea party movement did well. Republican Ted Cruz, the son of a Cuban-born father, won the Senate race in Texas, while Deb Fischer won in Nebraska over former Democratic Sen. Bob Kerrey.

Republicans did well in the Southwest, where Arizona congressman Jeff Flake won a tough race to hold a seat, while in Nevada, Republican Sen. Dean Heller turned back a strong challenge.

Democrats prevailed in two very close races in conservative western states. In Montana, Sen. Jon Tester, who won one of the closest races in 2006, beat congressman Denny Rehberg in another narrow win. In conservative North Dakota, former state attorney general Heidi Heitkamp won a surprise victory over Republican congressman Rick Berg, who had been favored to win a seat being vacated by a retiring Democrat.

In the new Senate, Democrats will remain below the 60-vote supermajority needed to easily pass legislation under Senate rules.

"Now that the election is over, it's time to put politics aside and work together to find solutions," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell offered to work with Obama if the president is ready to compromise.

"To the extent he wants to move to the political center, which is where the work gets done in a divided government, we'll be there to meet him half way," McConnell said.

(Associated Press writers Donna Cassata contributed to this report from Washington.)